A federal appeals court Nov. 13 gave at least a temporary victory to a Christian school that was banned from praying over the loudspeaker before a high school football game. The ruling sends the case back to a lower court to be heard a second time.
In December 2015, the football team of Cambridge Christian School (CCS) in Tampa, Florida, was preparing for its championship game against Jacksonville’s University Christian School at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.
Per school tradition, the two teams asked the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) for permission to conduct a joint prayer over the stadium’s loudspeaker before kickoff. The FHSAA denied the request, saying that such a prayer would be considered “government speech.”
“It’s been our tradition to pray ever since I’ve been on the team,” said Jacob Enns, kicker for CCS. “But then they said we couldn’t pray and our tradition was ruined. It was so disappointing.”
In September 2016, attorneys from the religious liberty law firm First Liberty Institute, along with concerned parents and teachers, attended the FHSAA board meeting and asked the association to adopt a policy that would respect the religious freedom of students across the state of Florida. The FHSAA refused, and the next day, First Liberty filed a lawsuit against the FHSAA, arguing that blocking prayer violated First Amendment rights.
“By banning the pre-game prayer over the loudspeaker, the FHSAA sent a message to these students that prayer is wrong and something you should be ashamed of,” said Hiram Sasser, general counsel for First Liberty. “That is dangerous and unconstitutional.”
U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell dismissed the case in February 2017, but a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned the ruling Nov. 13 and sent the lawsuit back to the lower court.
“As we see it, the district court was too quick to dismiss all of Cambridge Christian’s claims out of hand,” wrote 11th Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus in the 70-page decision. “Taking the complaint in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, as we must at this stage in the proceedings, the schools’ claims for relief under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses have been adequately and plausibly pled.
“… The lower court was too quick to pull the trigger insofar as it dismissed the appellants’ free speech and free exercise claims,” he added. “We cannot say whether these claims will ultimately succeed, but Cambridge Christian has plausibly alleged enough to enter the courtroom and be heard.”
“We are grateful to have won this appeal and look forward to presenting our case on behalf of Cambridge Christian School to the district court,” said Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty. “The First Amendment protects the rights of students and teachers at a private Christian school to pray before a football game, especially when both teams are Christian and have a tradition of prayer before games.”
Above: Cambridge Christian School students praying at a high school football game, per their tradition.
Photo: Beth Dare Photography, courtesy of First Liberty