TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Department of Education is backing a Christian school in Tampa in a legal battle over whether the school should have been allowed to offer prayer over a stadium loudspeaker before a 2015 championship football game .
Department attorneys filed a 28-page brief this week in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, lambasting the Florida High School Athletic Association, which denied Cambridge Christian School’s request to offer prayer before the high school game in Orlando.
Cambridge Christian challenged the constitutionality of the association’s decision and appealed to the Atlanta Court of Appeals after U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell ruled in April that the association had not violated the school’s First Amendment rights.
In this week’s brief, lawyers for the Department of Education wrote that the association “completely ignored fundamental First Amendment principles when it refused to allow Cambridge Christian School to pray over the loudspeaker at of his 2015 championship game solely because of the religious message of the prayer, even though secular and non-governmental messages were allowed.
“A responsible government entity would have handled this matter with due regard to the important interests at stake by seeking from the outset to achieve a resolution that takes every possible step to accommodate the religious liberty interests at stake,” the statement said. friend of the court’s memory said. “The FHSAA (the association) has completely failed in this constitutionally mandated task. This court (of appeal) should reverse the decision below and render judgment for CCS (Cambridge Christian).
State law gives the association, a nonprofit organization, the responsibility of governing high school sports. In its April ruling, Honeywell said the association was a “state actor.” She also noted that players and coaches from Cambridge Christian and its football rival, Jacksonville’s University Christian School, met on the grounds of Camping World Stadium to pray before and after the 2015 game.
“The issue before the court is whether the First Amendment required the FHSAA to grant teams unrestricted access to the public address system to deliver the prayer over the loudspeaker during pregame play,” Honeywell wrote. “Thus, the questions that must be answered are whether the inability to pray over the loudspeaker during the pregame of the football state championship final violated the CSC’s First Amendment rights to liberty. expression and the free exercise of religion. … (The) court finds that the First Amendment does not apply because the speech at issue is government speech, but even if part of the speech is considered private speech, the court finds no constitutional violation. took place.
The legal battle has been going on for years. Honeywell initially dismissed the case in 2017, but the appeals court in 2019 overturned the dismissal and returned the case to Honeywell for further consideration. This led to his April judgment in favor of the association.
In 2019, then Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran tried to pressure the association to reconsider policies that prevented Cambridge Christian from offering prayer over the loudspeaker. The association responded at the time, saying it would allow the dispute to be resolved in court.
The Department for Education’s brief this week pointed to a legal standard known as “strict scrutiny”, which it said applies in cases of actions that “heavy” religious discourse.
“Such actions can therefore only be justified if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve the compelling interests of the state,” the brief states. “But the FHSAA did not take this analysis seriously. He offered no genuine compelling state interest in restricting the speech in question and refused to consider any of the many reasonable alternatives he was required to consider under strict scrutiny.