A federal appeals court has reversed a lower-court ruling so that now public prayers are permitted at Christian schools' athletic events.
After a lower court backed the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHDAA) decision to ban two Christian schools from saying prayers over a loudspeaker before a Division 2A state championship game at the Citrus Bowl, the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week reversed it to allow prayers.
Despite the reversal, the appeals court maintained that there is still merit in the complaint – asserting that the matter should continue to go to trial – and Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty Institute, looks forward to arguing his clients' case.
"We are grateful to have won this appeal and look forward to presenting our case on behalf of Cambridge Christian School to the district court," Dys explained in a press release. "The First Amendment protects the rights of students and teachers at a private Christian school to pray before a football game – especially when both teams are Christian and have a tradition of prayer before games."
Stopping the silent treatment
The controversy dates back to the 2015 Florida state football championship game between University Christian School and Cambridge Christian School at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida.
"The FHSAA suggested that because the stadium was city-owned and the FHSAA a state agency, it would violate the Constitution to allow two private Christian schools to pray over a state-owned microphone for less than a minute," First Liberty recounted.
The appellate decision asserted the that the Christian schools' right to express their faith should not have been taken away without more consideration.
"The lower court was too quick to pull the trigger insofar as it dismissed the [Cambridge Christian's] free speech and free exercise [of religion] claims," the 11th Circuit's 70-page decision stated, according to Fox News. "We cannot say whether these claims will ultimately succeed, but Cambridge Christian has plausibly alleged enough to enter the courtroom and be heard."
It maintained that First Amendment rights should not so easily be stripped away from believers.
"A three-judge panel on the Eleventh Circuit overturned the previous ruling, saying Cambridge Christian's free speech and free exercise rights were violated and the FHSAA 'arbitrarily and haphazardly denied access' to the Christian schools – sending the lawsuit back to the lower court," Fox News' Caleb Parke informed.
The appellate decision indicated that the so-called separation of church and state was yet again misapplied – a concept penned by former President Thomas Jefferson that was originally intended to keep the government from interfering with the Church … and not the other way around.
"In 2015, the FHSAA argued that the prayer could not be delivered by the Christian schools because the microphone was state-owned and would violate the Constitution – citing the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause precedent and the principle of 'separation of church and state,'" Parke noted.
"A federal district judge sided with FHSAA in February 2017 before First Liberty's win Wednesday at the Eleventh Circuit. First Liberty argued the First Amendment protects the rights of students and teachers at a private Christian school to pray before a football game – especially when both teams are Christian and have a tradition of doing so before games."
Government speech … really?
At the time, Roger Dearing – who heads FHSAA – explained why his group forbade the Christian teams from honoring God at the game.
"[The Citrus Bowl Stadium] is a public facility – predominantly paid for with public tax dollars – [making] the facility 'off limits' under federal guidelines and precedent court cases," Dearing told the teams, as quoted by First Coast News. "In Florida Statutes, the FHSAA (host and coordinator of the event) is legally a 'State Actor' – we cannot legally permit or grant permission for such an activity."
Over the next couple of years, attorneys and judges got involved in the matter.
"In September 2016, First Liberty and the law firm Greenberg Traurig filed suit against the FHSAA, with a magistrate court siding with FHSAA in February 2017," The Christian Post reported. "In June 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell affirmed the report and recommendation of the magistrate court."
Judge Honeywell's problematic opinion – which was eventually overruled two years later – essentially argued that whatever was uttered through the speakers at the game, regardless of the audience, was government speech.
"[T]he court agrees with the Magistrate Judge that the entirety of the speech over the stadium loudspeaker was government speech and that – even if it were not – the stadium loudspeaker is a non-public forum," Honeywell ruled, according to the Post. "Therefore, the FHSAA was permitted to deny Cambridge Christian's request to use it to broadcast prayer during a school sporting event organized and governed by a state entity."
As the proceedings move forward, it will ultimately be determined if the FHSAA not only violated the schools' free-speech rights, but their freedom to express their Christian faith, as well.
"Also, the FHSAA might have infringed on Cambridge's free exercise of religion, [as] both schools had asked for permission for the loudspeaker prayer," WND pointed out. "The teams were able to meet on the field and pray before the game, but 'fans were unable to hear.'"
Case Summary page at First Liberty Institute