State of Florida backs Tampa Christian school in lawsuit over pregame prayer

Photo via Camping World Stadium website

The Florida Department of Education is backing a Tampa Christian school in a legal battle over whether the school should be allowed to pray over the stadium loudspeaker before the 2015 football championship game.

Attorneys for the ministry filed a 28-page brief this week in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blasting the Florida High School Athletic Association for denying Cambridge Christian School’s request to offer a prayer before a high school game in Orlando.

Cambridge Christian challenged the constitutionality of the association’s decision and went to the Atlanta-based appeals court after U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell said in April that the association did not violate the school’s First Amendment rights.

In a brief this week, Department of Education lawyers wrote that the association “completely disregarded fundamental First Amendment principles when it denied a prayer over the loudspeaker at a Cambridge Christian school at its 2015 championship game solely because of the religious message of the prayers, even though they were secular, non-governmental messages allowed.”

“A responsible governmental entity would handle this matter with due consideration of the weighty interests at stake by initially attempting to reach a resolution that takes every possible step to consider the religious liberty interests at stake,” the friend-of -the- said the court record. “The FHSAA (association) has completely failed in this constitutional task. This (appellate) court should reverse the decision below and enter judgment for CCS (Cambridge Christian).”

State law gives the association, a non-profit organization, responsibility for managing high school sports. In its April ruling, Honeywell said the association was a “state actor.” She also noted that players and coaches from Cambridge Christian and its football opponent, Jacksonville’s University Christian School, met on the field at Camping World Stadium to pray before and after the 2015 game.

“The issue before the court is whether the First Amendment required the FHSAA to grant teams unrestricted access to the public address system to broadcast a prayer over the loudspeaker during the pregame,” Honeywell wrote. “Thus, the questions to be answered are whether the inability to pray over the loudspeaker during the pregame of the national championship final football game violated CCS’s First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of religion. … (The court) concludes that the First Amendment does not apply because the speech in question is government speech, but even if a portion of the speech is considered private speech, the court finds that there was no constitutional violation.”

The legal battle lasted for years. Honeywell initially dismissed the case in 2017, but an appeals court reversed the dismissal in 2019 and sent the case back to Honeywell for further consideration. That led to her ruling in April in favor of the association.

In 2019, then-Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran tried to pressure the association to reconsider policies that prevented Cambridge Christian from praying through the loudspeaker. At the time, the association responded that they would allow the dispute to be resolved in court.

The Department of Education this week pointed to a legal standard known as “strict scrutiny” that it says applies in cases of actions that “burden” religious speech.

“Such actions can therefore only be justified if the government can demonstrate that they are narrowly tailored to serve urgent state interests,” the report states. “But the FHSAA did not take that analysis seriously. It offered no real compelling state interest in restricting objectionable speech and refused to consider any of the many reasonable alternatives it had to consider under strict scrutiny.”