Amid a long-running legal battle, the Florida House on Friday moved forward with a proposal that could allow schools to offer prayers over public-address systems before events such as high-school championship football games.
The proposal, added to an education bill (HB 7103), would require the Florida High School Athletic Association to make changes that would lead to schools being offered 30 seconds for opening remarks over public-address systems.
“The FHSAA may not prohibit prayer or otherwise control, monitor, or review the content of the opening remarks, if any,” the proposal said. “Prior to the opening remarks, the public-address announcer shall announce that the content of any opening remarks by a participating school is not endorsed by and does not reflect the views and opinions of the FHSAA.”
The House could pass the bill, sponsored by Education Chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, as soon as Monday. The House and the Senate then would have to reach agreement before the bill could become law.
The proposal emerged amid a federal-court fight that stems from a 2016 football championship game between Cambridge Christian School of Tampa and University Christian School of Jacksonville. The Florida High School Athletic Association, the governing body of high school sports, denied a request to use the public-address system at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium to offer a pre-game prayer.
Cambridge Christian School filed a lawsuit against the association, arguing that its First Amendment rights had been violated.
U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell in 2017 dismissed the case, writing that Cambridge Christian’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 a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling last year and sent the case back to the lower court, where it is pending.
“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 said. “We cannot say whether these claims will ultimately succeed, but Cambridge Christian has plausibly alleged enough to enter the courtroom and be heard.”
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a former state House speaker, late last year called on 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.”
But the association has argued that allowing the schools to offer a prayer over the loudspeaker would have been viewed as “government speech.”
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida