Fla. education chief fights to allow Christian schools to offer public prayers at games

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Photo via Florida House of Representatives/Wikimedia Commons From the left, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Palm City, listens as then-Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, comments on successes at the end of the special session of the Legislature with Gov. Rick Scott at his side June 9, 2017.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is taking the ball and running with it in a case that dates back to 2015, when two Christian schools were barred from saying prayers over stadium loudspeakers before a 2015 football game.

Orlando Weekly reported that Corcoran sent a letter last week asking the Florida High School Athletic Association to “conduct an immediate review of its policies and procedures to ensure religious expression is permitted to the greatest extent possible under the law.”

“I expect this to be heard, addressed and updated at the next available FHSAA Board of Directors meeting,” Corcoran wrote. “Policies that are overbroad or restrictive may deny students their constitutional right to private religious expression. Such policies must be immediately repealed and replaced with policies that are consistent with the religious freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution.”

Corcoran addressed the letter to athletic association Executive Director George Tomyn a month after a federal appeals court supported a lawsuit filed in 2016 by Cambridge Christian School of Tampa, which was not allowed to use a stadium loudspeaker to offer a spoken prayer before a state championship game at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.

Cambridge Christian filed the suit against the athletic association, arguing that the decision blocking the use of the P.A. system for the prayer violated First Amendment rights. U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell in 2017 dismissed the case, but a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out that ruling Nov. 13 and sent the lawsuit back to the lower court.

Honeywell has scheduled a Dec. 30 conference call to discuss the case. Tomyn, who became the athletic association’s executive director in 2017, could not immediately be reached for comment this week.

The 2015 game that led to the lawsuit involved Cambridge Christian and Jacksonville’s University Christian School. The athletic association prevented the schools from using the public-address system for a prayer, saying in court documents that such a prayer would have been viewed as “government speech.”

In his letter Friday, Corcoran called the facts of the case “deeply troubling.”

“There is a clear difference in government speech endorsing religion and private speech endorsing religion,” he wrote. “The state must not censor private religious speech of its students, even where that speech is given at a state-sponsored event or on public property.”

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