In a long-running legal battle, a federal judge has rejected arguments that the Florida High School Athletic Association improperly prevented Christian schools from offering a prayer over a stadium loudspeaker before a 2015 state championship football game.
U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell issued a 38-page ruling Thursday that said the association, the governing body for high-school sports, is a “state actor” and did not violate First Amendment rights when it refused to allow a prayer over the public-address system before a game between Tampa’s Cambridge Christian School and Jacksonville’s University Christian School.
The U.S. Supreme Court on April 25 hears a case from Washington State, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, that may have broad implications for prayers at school events, including on the field. That case was brought by a high school football coach who prayed with students. His school district ordered him not to. He defied the order and sued. The trial and appeal courts have ruled in favor of the district. The Supreme Court has been steadily demolishing the church-state wall even before the arrival of the last three, particularly conservative justices and the now lopsided 6-3 conservative majority. That shift suggests that Honeywell’s decision may have a short life. (Honeywell was appointed to the court by President Obama in 2009 and unanimously confirmed by the Senate.)
Cambridge Christian filed the lawsuit, which the Tampa-based Honeywell dismissed in 2017. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 overturned the dismissal (see that decision here) and sent the case back to Honeywell for further consideration.
Thursday’s ruling said the case “is not about whether two Christian schools may pray together at a football game,” noting that players and coaches met on the field of Orlando’s Camping World Stadium to pray before and after the game.
“The issue before the court is whether the First Amendment required the FHSAA (the association) 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 (Cambridge Christian’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.”
Honeywell added that the “threshold question is whether the speech over the PA system is government speech or private speech. If the speech is government speech, the First Amendment does not apply and the inquiry goes no further. … (The) pregame speech over the PA system at the state hosted championship final football game is government speech.”
During a December hearing, Jesse Panuccio, an attorney representing Cambridge Christian, argued that the FHSAA displayed “viewpoint discrimination and arbitrariness” in its decision to block the prayer.
Part of the school’s argument was that the FHSAA allowed a pre-game prayer over the loudspeaker at a 2012 state championship at the same stadium.
“There are two data points, two times that schools requested to pray at the class 2A championship game. And in 50 percent of them, the FHSAA approved the request. That is arbitrary application,” Panuccio said.
But Honeywell indicated that prayers before the 2012 championship game or playoff games did not change her view that decisions about the use of the public-address system at the 2015 game involved government speech. Advertisements and other announcements over the system were scripted.
“As for the single occurrence of prayer in the 2012 script, the court is not persuaded that the one incident creates a ‘history’ of private speech,” she wrote. “While there is record evidence that prayer occurred in the 2012 Class 2A football championship final pregame, the isolated incident of prayer against the backdrop of a decade’s worth of football championship final scripts without any mention of prayer is an aberration which cannot be relied upon to evidence a history of private speech. Indeed, at oral argument, the FHSAA acknowledged the 2012 prayer was permitted in error.”
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive
I find it a serious issue when a country can provide an special hour for worship for Muslim religion students and even an atheist club in one school but to have all these issues over prayer by Christian faith in which this country was built upon? I find we are in very dangerous times as a ” One Nation Under God.” I will tell you this.. the Almighty is not happy with His children. Satan isn’t even hiding anymore. May God help this nation and this world. We are living in end times.
Deborah Coffey says
This new Republican Party just won’t be happy until the U.S.A. is a White, fundamentalist Christian, fascist nation behaving like Russia. And, I don’t know what the answer is to stop it from happening. All these “Don’t Tread on Me” voters will be moving to “OMG! I Never Meant to Tread on MYSELF!”
The great thing about our secular Constitution is that it doesn’t mention “god” at all. Not even the oath of office, which is specified in the Constitution, mentions “god”. Religion is mentioned twice. The first is that there shall be no religious test to hold office. The second is that Congress (the government) cannot establish a religion or prevent the free exercise of religion.
Even so, just about all religions and/or members try to push their beliefs onto others or take advantage of their “belief”. Back many years ago when I was a manager, I had a Muslim employee who tried to “work” the Muslim prayer requirements to his advantage. Muslims are required by their faith to pray 5 times a day. He claimed that he needed extra time off to pray. I sat down with him (with a union representative in attendance) and explained that his first (1) prayer should occur just after he gets up in the morning and before work. His second (2) prayer should occur during his lunch period just after noon. His third (3) prayer should occur in the late afternoon, either after work or during his 15 minute afternoon break. His fourth (4) prayer is after the sun goes down. The final (5) prayer is before he goes to bed. That between the two 15 minute morning and afternoon breaks, plus his lunch break, he had plenty of time to fulfill his prayer requirements. (Fajr; Dhuhr; Asr; Maghrib; Isha)
As this ruling made clear, “Thursday’s ruling said the case “is not about whether two Christian schools may pray together at a football game,” noting that players and coaches met on the field of Orlando’s Camping World Stadium to pray before and after the game.” Rather it was that the public loudspeakers should not be used to promote religion.