Christian school wins round over pre-game prayer

Cambridge Christian School Lancers (Tampa Bay Times)

A lawsuit that was filed after Christian schools were barred from praying over a loudspeaker system at an athletic event has been reinstated.

A federal appeals court on Nov. 13 reversed the dismissal of a suit about whether the Florida High School Athletic Association improperly barred Cambridge Christian School of Tampa and Jacksonville’s University Christian School from offering prayers over the stadium speakers before a state championship football game in 2015.

Cambridge Christian argues in the lawsuit disallowing the use of the speakers for prayer violated its First Amendment rights. U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell in 2017 tossed out the case, but a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling this week and sent it back to the lower court.

“The lower court was too quick to pull the trigger insofar as it dismissed the appellants’ (Cambridge’s) free speech and free exercise (of religion) claims,” the 70-page appeals court decision reads. “We cannot say whether these claims will ultimately succeed, but Cambridge Christian has plausibly alleged enough to enter the courtroom and be heard.”

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The case began at a December 2015 football championship game between Cambridge Christian and University Christian at Camping World Stadium in Orlando. The athletic association prevented the use of the PA system for a prayer, saying in court documents that such a prayer would have constituted “government speech.”

“The two schools, both Christian institutions, asked the FHSAA for permission to conduct a joint prayer over the loudspeaker before kickoff, as they each typically did before all other games,” Wednesday’s decision by the Atlanta-based appeals court said. “The FHSAA denied the request, citing the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause precedent and the principle of ‘separation of church and state.’”

Cambridge Christian filed the lawsuit in federal court in Tampa, but Honeywell disagreed that the association had violated First Amendment rights. She wrote that the school’s position “amounts to a request that the FHSAA open its loudspeaker, which otherwise is not accessible to private parties, to allow for prayer to be broadcast during a government controlled and hosted event. This would likewise be perceived as state endorsement of Cambridge Christian’s religious message.”

But the appeals court reversed the dismissal, saying, “The district court was too quick to dismiss all of Cambridge Christian’s claims out of hand.”


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