A federal judge has ruled against Cambridge Christian School (CCS), a private Christian high school in Tampa, Florida, stating that the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) had the right to bar the school from delivering a pregame prayer over the loudspeaker before a 2015 state championship football game.
U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell reasoned that because the game was hosted by the FHSAA at a government-owned stadium, the prayer would have been considered “government speech,” which does not fall under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.
“The Court concludes that the First Amendment does not apply because the speech at issue is government speech, but even if some portion of the speech is considered private speech, the Court finds no constitutional violation occurred,” Honeywell wrote in her 38-page ruling.
But Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for religious liberty organization First Liberty Institute, told The Christian Post that the real issue is whether the school was forbidden from praying over the loudspeaker because the action was “religious.”
“The athletic association, like so many people, uses that PA system for … messages of their own choosing, or they read off messages, advertising messages, and everything else,” Sasser said. “So there is so much private use of that PA system. To not allow the schools to use it for their opening prayer they always had just doesn’t make any sense.”
Honeywell said that “the Court’s role is not to ‘drill too far down into “belief” and “sincerity”’ to determine whether communal pregame prayer is a sincerely-held belief of CCS,” but then asserted that “communal pregame prayer over the PA system is a preference of CCS’, not a deeply rooted tradition that rises to the level of a sincerely held belief.”
Jesse Panuccio, another lawyer representing Cambridge Christian, argued in a December hearing that the FHSAA displayed “viewpoint discrimination and arbitrariness” in its decision to block the prayer, pointing out that the association allowed a pregame prayer over the loudspeaker at a 2012 state championship at the same stadium.
“There are two data points, two times that schools requested to pray at the class 2A championship game. And in 50% of them, the FHSAA approved the request. That is arbitrary application,” Panuccio said.
This is not the first time Honeywell sided with the FHSAA. In 2017, she dismissed the case, but in 2019, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal and sent the case back to Honeywell for further consideration.
Following Honeywell’s most recent decision, Sasser indicated that First Liberty plans to appeal a second time on behalf of Cambridge Christian.
Photo: Beth Dare Photography/Courtesy of First Liberty