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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

New law makes changes to high school sports in Florida and allows prayer before games

football players kneel on the field
Quincy Walters
The law comes as Cambridge Christian School is involved in a suit that stems from the 2015 state football championship game it played against University Christian School of Jacksonville.

The law gives the state more power over a group that governs high school sports. Gov. DeSantis signed the bill at Cambridge Christian School in Tampa, which is involved in a legal battle over praying before games.

A new law overhauls the Florida High School Athletic Association, essentially giving Gov. Ron DeSantis control over the nonprofit that largely governs high school sports in the state. It also gives some student athletes more choices about where to play and allows schools to offer “opening remarks,” like prayer, before games.

DeSantis signed the bill, HB225, on Wednesday in front of a cheering crowd at Cambridge Christian School in Tampa.

The school has been involved in a years-long federal lawsuit after the FHSAA barred it from praying over the loudspeaker at the 2015 state football championship game against University Christian School of Jacksonville.

DeSantis voiced his support for the school at the bill signing.

“You have a right to free expression of religion,” he said. “If government is denying your right to say a prayer before the game they are infringing your speech.”

But a federal judge sided with the athletic association last year. U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell ruled that the association is a “state actor” and did not violate First Amendment rights in denying the prayer.

Cambridge Christian is appealing in the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The new law, which will go into effect on July 1, states that schools must be allowed to make opening remarks over the public address system provided they are under two minutes long. Those remarks cannot be “derogatory, rude or threatening,” but the athletic association can’t review or control them otherwise. An announcement must be made that the content of the remarks doesn’t reflect the views of the athletic association.

The head of Cambridge Christian Shawn Minks celebrated the legislation.

“I don’t know what other schools or students will say during those opening remarks, that’s up to them, but I do know next time Cambridge Christian returns to play for a state championship – and we will return – we will prayer over the loudspeaker before kickoff,” he said to cheers from the audience.

Changes to the FHSAA

The law gives the state more authority over the FHSAA in a number of ways. It requires that any changes the association makes to its bylaws be ratified by the state Board of Education. The Board of Education will also get final say over the hiring of the FHSAA executive director and the budget adopted by its board of directors.

It also shrinks the size of that board and allows the governor to appoint a majority of its members.

Currently, the association states that its 16-member board is made up of four elected public school representatives, four elected private school representatives, two elected district school superintendents, two elected district school board members, three representatives appointed by the Commissioner of Education, and the Commissioner of Education or his/her designated representative.

The law reduces that board to 12 members. The governor will appoint eight of them, and then those people will choose four more members to fill the remaining seats.

The legislation eliminates a requirement for one member to be chosen “to balance the board for diversity or state population trends, or both.”

The FHSAA dealt with controversy earlier this year when it considered including mandatory questions about students’ menstrual cycles on medical eligibility forms. After receiving a flood of complaints from the public, the board voted to remove those questions.

DeSantis did not mention this at the bill signing, but shared other complaints he had about the association to justify the need for change.

He said the association took too long to implement a state law passed in 2021 that bans transgender girls from playing on school sports teams intended for athletes assigned female at birth.

The governor also took issue with how the FHSAA handled resuming school sports after they were put on pause during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

As schools prepared to reopen for in-person learning following a surge of cases in the summer of 2020, the association’s medical advisory board recommended against resuming sports in August due to concerns about the virus spreading. Experts suggested waiting until late September at the earliest.

The board of directors pushed aside that advice and voted to start sports seasons a few weeks after classes started, but DeSantis said he was already convinced changes need to be made.

“Fortunately we were able to really work hard and save the sports season for kids but had we not done that, that would have been really negative for a lot of families in the state of Florida,” he said on Wednesday.

Some lawmakers who opposed the bill, including Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-Miami Gardens), have compared the changes in oversight to “authoritarianism” in the past.

The also expands options for some students to participate in extracurricular activities at schools they don’t attend. Homeschool, charter school and virtual school students can develop agreements to participate in activities at private schools.

Public school students who transfer during the school year can continue to participate in activities at their first school through the remainder of the school year.

Information from the News Service of Florida contributed to this story.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.