© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You Count on Us, We Count on You: Donate to WUSF to support free, accessible journalism for yourself and the community.

A new Florida law becomes an issue for Cambridge Christian's pregame prayer fight

Attorneys for Cambridge Christian School filed a document Thursday at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that suggested the Supreme Court ruling could affect the pre-game prayer case.
Google Maps

A new state law could help short-circuit a legal battle about whether the school was improperly barred from offering a prayer over a stadium loudspeaker before a 2016 high-school football championship game.

Attorneys are battling over whether a new state law could short-circuit a case about whether a Tampa Christian school was improperly prevented from offering a prayer over a stadium loudspeaker before a 2015 high-school football championship game.

The Florida High School Athletic Association on Friday filed a brief arguing the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals should dismiss the case, in part because the new law will allow such prayers.

The Atlanta-based appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments June 27 in the lawsuit, which Cambridge Christian School filed after the athletic association rejected a request by the school to offer a prayer before a game at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium. A federal district judge upheld the athletic association’s decision, but Gov. Ron DeSantis last month signed a law (HB 225) that allows “opening remarks,” which could be prayers, at high-school championship events.

In the brief Friday, attorneys for the athletic association argued that Cambridge Christian could not show it had legal “standing” for reasons including the law.

“(The law) was specifically tailored to eliminate the purported injury CCS (Cambridge Christian) asserts here, and it would plainly do so if CCS were to make it back to an FHSAA championship game,” the brief said. “CCS complained it was denied access to ‘deliver a prayer over the stadium loudspeaker at the (2015 final),’ but (the law) guarantees CCS would have that opportunity if it participates in any future FHSAA championship games. As this change was brought about by the Florida Legislature, the FHSAA has no power to undo it. It would take an unlikely series of events entirely outside of the FHSAA’s control — i.e., the Florida Legislature passing and the governor signing a bill undoing (the law) — for the behavior CCS complains of to recur.”

But attorneys for Cambridge Christian disputed the argument in a brief Friday. They said the athletic association still needs to adopt policies to carry out the law and pointed to the association’s constitutional arguments that such prayers violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“FHSAA’s justification for the prayer ban is that it is required by the Establishment Clause, which, of course, overrides a state statute. … Accordingly, unless and until FHSAA revokes its (erroneous) position on the requirements of the Establishment Clause — something it has refused to do throughout the seven years of this litigation — the new statute does not moot CCS’s need for an injunction,” the school’s brief said.

"It would take an unlikely series of events entirely outside of the FHSAA’s control — i.e., the Florida Legislature passing and the governor signing a bill undoing (the law) — for the behavior CCS complains of to recur.”
Brief by attorneys from Florida High School Athletic Association

The case stems from the athletic association’s decision to prevent a prayer over the public-address system before a game between Cambridge Christian School and Jacksonville’s University Christian School. Cambridge Christian has argued that the denial violated its First Amendment rights.

But U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell last year rejected the school’s arguments, saying the athletic association is a “state actor.”

“The issue before the court is whether the First Amendment required the FHSAA to grant the teams unrestricted access to the PA system to deliver the 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 state championship final football game violated CCS’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. … (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.”

The Florida Department of Education in August filed a brief supporting the school in its appeal. The Republican-controlled Legislature this spring approved the law that will allow schools to give opening remarks before championship games.

“Such remarks may not be longer than 2 minutes per participating school,” part of the law said. “The athletic association may not control, monitor, or review the content of the opening remarks and may not control the school's choice of speaker.”

With the June 27 arguments nearing, the appeals court last month ordered attorneys from both sides to file briefs about whether “Cambridge Christian School has demonstrated an ongoing or certainly impending injury to establish standing for its equitable claims.”

In addition to citing the new law, attorneys for the athletic association Friday contended that the case should be dismissed because the school could not show that its participation in another championship event is “imminent.”

But Cambridge Christian attorneys argued the school continues to have standing for a series of reasons, including that the athletic association “maintains a discriminatory policy prohibiting schools’ use of the loudspeaker for pregame prayer at championship events while permitting use of the loudspeaker for secular speech.”

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.