Standing before a Federal Appeals Court on Tuesday, June 27, attorneys with First Liberty Institute argued that Cambridge Christian School (CCS) has the Constitutional right to pray over a stadium loudspeaker at football games.
In 2015, the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSSA) prevented the school from saying a pre-game prayer over a loudspeaker at a state championship game against another private Christian school.
Since CSS fielded its first football team in 2003, the Tampa school has consistently prayed ahead of games as part of its mission to “glorify God in all that we do.”
Two days before the 2015 championship game, CCS’s head of school emailed Dr. Roger Dearing, the FHSAA’s then-executive director, with a request to “allow two Christian schools to honor their Lord before the game and pray … over the loudspeaker.” He wanted all to join in and celebrate the competition with prayer at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, a stadium that can seat over 50,000 people.
The opposing school, University Christian, was in full support of praying before the game and said it was of “utmost importance.” In fact, the FHSAA had approved University Christian’s request for prayer over a loudspeaker in 2012.
But the FHSAA’s response to CCS’s request stated:
“Although both schools are private and religious-affiliated institutions, the federal law addresses two pertinent issues that prevent us from granting your request. First is the fact that the facility is a public facility, predominantly paid for with public tax dollars, makes the facility ‘off limits’ under federal guidelines and precedent court cases. Second, is the fact that in Florida Statutes, the FHSAA (host and coordinator of the event) is legally a ‘State Actor’, we cannot legally permit or grant permission for such an activity.”
Since the prayer was denied for the championship game, student-athletes, coaches and several FHSSA game officials gathered at midfield and prayed. However, those watching in the Citrus Bowl stadium were unable to hear.
Seated in the stands during the championship game, one CCS player’s mom shared that “because the prayer was not offered over the public-address system, I was unable to pray with my son Jacob before the game, unable to pray with all the Cambridge Christian fans and community members in attendance, and unable to join with fellow Christians from University Christian School in asking God’s blessing and protection during the game.”
Her son added: “I was unable to pray together with my parents who were in the stands. I was also unable to join with Cambridge Christian friends and fans supporting both teams in praying for God’s protection and blessing in the game.”
“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,” stated Jeremy Dys, senior counsel with First Liberty Institute.
“By banning the pre-game prayer over the loudspeaker, the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) sent a message to these students that prayer is wrong and something you should be ashamed of. That is dangerous and unconstitutional.”
A few days after the state championship game, Dearing emailed the two religious schools to explain the prayer ban. Mentioning the issue of separation between church and state, he said that a “government may not engage in activities that can be viewed as endorsing or sponsoring religion.”
The case has spun into a seven-year legal battle over free speech. A district magistrate ruled in 2017 that the schools could not pray over the loudspeaker at the Citrus Bowl. The school then filed a brief with the Eleventh Circuit, which said in 2019 that Cambridge Christian School had a case that should proceed in the courts. But in 2022, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida sided with the FHSAA.
The school appealed to the Eleventh Circuit in August 2022, leading to the recent oral arguments. During those arguments, an attorney for the FHSAA argued that the case may be moot because Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a law that allows opening remarks, including prayers, before high school athletic contests.
First Liberty attorneys countered that unless the FHSAA officially revokes its prayer ban, the new state law may not guarantee legal relief for the school, since the FHSAA has claimed Constitutional grounds for its ban on pre-game prayers.
“For seven years, CCS has fought to vindicate its constitutional rights,” the CCS appeal states. “For seven years, FHSAA has resisted. It is time for this saga to end. CCS respectfully asks this Court to again reverse the district court’s erroneous decision and enter summary judgment in CCS’s favor.”
Stock photo of a football player in prayer: Unsplash.com