The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) has a simple rule when it comes to reciting Christian prayers over the loudspeakers before football games: Don’t do it. It’s a fair policy considering it echoes what the U.S. Supreme Court said more than 16 years ago.
In December of 2015, two private Christian schools made it all the way to the championship game in the state’s class 2A football playoffs. That’s when Cambridge Christian’s head of school Tim Euler asked state officials if he could say a prayer over the loudspeaker. The other school was okay with this, too. But that didn’t matter to FHSAA’s director:
FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing responded that because the Citrus Bowl is a public facility, the organization could not allow a prayer over the loudspeaker. The state championship game was also televised.
Makes perfect sense. This game was overseen and managed by the state, even if Christian schools were involved, and that meant following state law. Both teams were obviously allowed to pray before the game, and after the game, and during halftime, and silently whenever the hell they want. They could pull a Tebow during the game if they wanted to. And because they were private schools, the coaches could legally join in.
But they couldn’t pray over the loudspeakers.
At the time, lawyers from First Liberty, a Christian legal defense group, threatened to sue:
[Attorney Jeremy] Dys demanded a letter of apology from the FHSAA within 30 days. If that does not happen, he said, he is prepared to fight the issue in federal court.
“Either apologize now or in front of a judge,” Dys said.
There was nothing to apologize for, though. The state didn’t do anything wrong. They didn’t block kids from praying. They merely said a public loudspeaker in a public facility couldn’t be used to broadcast prayer during a state event. This isn’t hard to understand unless you work for a Christian legal group, and your paycheck requires you to scream “Persecution!!!” three times a day.
First Liberty ultimately filed a federal lawsuit against the state organization:
First Liberty filed the lawsuit along with lawyers from the firm of Greenberg Traurig. On Tuesday, attorneys held a news conference with Tim Euler, head of school for Cambridge Christian.
“I believe in our Constitution,” Euler said. “I believe in our government. I believe that in time of need, we pray. And to say a prayer of thanksgiving prior to an athletic event should not be any different than Congress opening up their meetings in prayer.“
It was an awful analogy, in part because school events, unlike Congress, have a captive student audience. Congressional prayers also, at least in theory, can be delivered by people of any faith or no faith.
The teams both prayed on the field, according to the complaint, but spectators and fans couldn’t hear or participate.
“Thus, by denying access to the loudspeaker,” the suit states, “the FHSAA denied the students, parents and fans in attendance the right to participate in the players’ prayer or to otherwise come together in prayer as one Christian community.”
So… they couldn’t pray on their own when the team was doing it? Does God only work if there’s a booming voice in the mix? The FHSAA didn’t stop anybody from praying on their own, at the same time.
As I said earlier, the Supreme Court has already litigated this. It was hard to see how this lawsuit could be successful.
“The only reason the FHSAA said no is because it was religious speech,” Dys said. “You cannot banish religious speech to the broom closets. The lesson that the FHSAA is teaching every student athlete is somehow that prayer is wrong. That’s incorrect and it needs to end.“
That’s a lot of bullshit in a couple of sentences. The FHSAA wasn’t selectively banning religious speech. The students also couldn’t use the loudspeakers to tell the crowd to “Vote for Donald Trump.” The loudspeakers were to be used for the game, plain and simple.
The problem was that the Christians weren’t satisfied with that. They felt prayers only counted if they were done as publicly and loudly as possible. (Just like the Bible says.)
Atheists soon got involved in the case. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Central Florida Freethought Community filed an amicus brief with the court, urging the dismissal of the lawsuit back in October.
The speech in question is government speech, not private speech. Thus, the Plaintiff does not have a right to commandeer the public address system at FHSAA championship competitions.
Cambridge Christian fails to cite any authority that establishes that teams that participate in state-run championship competitions have the right to disseminate their own messages over the public address system. Without legal authority or factual support establishing that a forum for private speakers was created by the FHSAA, Cambridge Christian cannot meet its initial burden of establishing that it has a right to speak via the public address system in the first place.
… Under the Establishment Clause, the government may not endorse religion. There is no exception for when most members of the audience would be receptive to the religious message. FHSAA cannot be the mouthpiece of religious organizations or be used to gather event attendees to engage in a communal expression of Christian religious worship.
CFFC director Joseph Richardson was appalled that this was even an issue:
It is absolutely ridiculous that a complaint like Cambridge’s must even be considered. Their right to their own religious prayer practice ends where the rights of non-adherents begin, especially as it involves students. To think that the government should be required to concede to this demand is arrogance of highest order. Would they sit still for Muslim or Hindu prayers over the loudspeakers should such a group field a championship football team? Would they want the government to effectively endorse those religions through such largess? The court must see through this tissue paper of a case, acknowledge the rightness of FFRF’s brief and keep this government activity neutral.
Director Jocelyn Williamson added:
Cambridge Christian is within its rights to force prayers on students and parents over its own loudspeakers, but not at a state-sanctioned high school championship. We hope the court will see that this is not a matter of censorship, but the appropriate use of a public facility for a secular sporting event and not a religious revival.
It looks like the atheists’ argument will win the day. U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone recently recommended dismissing the case, basically saying Christians weren’t being persecuted in any way:
The judge’s recommendation likewise found that the prayer would be viewed as coming from the government. Sansone wrote that she reached “the inescapable conclusion that the nature of the entirety of the speech, including the proposed prayer, throughout the championship game over the loudspeaker is government speech.”
Cambridge Christian’s free exercise claim was also recommended for dismissal. The report noted that the suit did not include “a single allegation that Cambridge Christian or any of its members were deprived of their right to pray at the championship game. On the contrary, both Cambridge Christian’s team and the opposing team were permitted to pray together at the most centrally focused and public area of the stadium — the 50-yard line.” Sansone wrote that she “remains at a loss as to how the FHSAA’s refusal to permit Cambridge Christian to utilize the FHSAA-controlled loudspeaker to broadcast the teams’ pre-game prayer violated Cambridge Christian’s or its members’ rights under the Free Exercise Clause.“
That’s exactly what we expected the result would be — but it’s always nice to have objective confirmation from a judge.
As far as I can tell, First Liberty hasn’t said anything about the recommendation online — or whether they plan to appeal if the lawsuit actually is dismissed — but I’m sure they’re already writing a fundraising letter soaked in fake Christian tears.
According to FFRF, Judge Sansone’s suggestion will be given to District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell, “who may adopt the recommendation or author her own decision.”