Since the inception of the football program, the school’s tradition of praying over the loudspeaker before football games has never been broken, until now. Before kick-off, players, coaches, and fans pause as a student, parent, or faculty member offers a short prayer over the loudspeaker—the only way players and their parents can unite in prayer in a stadium.
In the fall of 2015, the CCS Lancers won their way to the state football championship for the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) 2A division. The game was scheduled for Friday, December 4, 2015 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, where the Lancers would face off against University Christian School.
Since both of the Christian schools had a tradition of pre-game prayer, CCS asked to use the loudspeaker to offer a prayer in the cavernous stadium before kick-off at the championship game. The FHSAA denied the request, forbidding the schools from praying over the loudspeaker. The association argued that somehow this could be viewed as an endorsement of religion since the Christian schools would be praying on government property.
The football players, coaches and fans were devastated by the FHSAA’s decision.
Jacob Enns said, “We were really excited to play in the championship game. It’s been our tradition to pray ever since I’ve been on the team. But then they said we couldn’t pray and our tradition was ruined. It was so disappointing.”
First Liberty attorneys sent a demand letter to FHSAA behalf of Cambridge Christian School on January 26, 2016, arguing that the FHSAA violated CCS’s rights as a religious institution.
On September 26, 2016, First Liberty attorneys, along with concerned parents and teachers, appeared at an FHSAA board meeting and asked the FHSAA to adopt a policy that would respect the religious freedom of students across the state of Florida. The FHSAA declined to take action, so on September 27, First Liberty Institute along with the volunteer law firm of Greenberg Traurig filed a lawsuit against the FHSAA. Read the lawsuit.
“By banning the pre-game prayer over the loudspeaker, the FHSAA sent a message to these students that prayer is wrong and something you should be ashamed of. That is dangerous and unconstitutional,” said Hiram Sasser, General Counsel for First Liberty.
On February 3, 2017, a Tampa district magistrate issued a “report and recommendation,” stating the two Christian schools cannot pray over the loudspeaker at the Citrus Bowl. Read the report and recommendation.
“First they told us public schools cannot pray over the loudspeaker. Now they say two private Christian schools cannot pray over the loudspeaker. When will this assault on free speech stop?” Sasser asked. “We will appeal this ruling and continue to fight against this incredible assault on the First Amendment.”
On October 20, 2017, attorneys with First Liberty Institute and Greenberg Traurig filed a brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on behalf of Cambridge Christian School. Oral arguments at the Eleventh Circuit took place in September of 2018. In November 2019, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Cambridge Christian School’s argument that its free speech and free exercise rights were violated have merit and should proceed. But in 2022, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida issued a decision affirming the FHSAA rule prohibiting two Christian schools from praying over the loudspeaker.
In August 2022, Attorneys with First Liberty Institute and the law firms Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, Winston and Strawn, LLP, and Jones Day filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on behalf of Cambridge Christian School (“CCS”) asking the court to reverse the lower court’s decision.
“The Constitution protects the best of our traditions, like prayer before a sporting event, from censorship,” said Jeremy Dys, Senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute. “In the name of the First amendment, the FHSAA would have us ignore it. Rather than respect the First Amendment’s double protection for religious expression, the lower court would have us silence it. We hope the Eleventh Circuit will correct the lower court’s decision by reminding us all that the Constitution protects religious speech, even when it occurs on government property.”
For Immediate Release: 6.27.23
Contact: John Manning, email@example.com
Cambridge Christian School Tells Federal Appeals Court that Prayer at Football Game is Constitutionally Protected
Lawsuit claims athletic association violated the Constitution by prohibiting prayer over the loudspeaker before a football game between two Christian schools.
Jacksonville, FL—Today, First Liberty Institute and the law firms Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, Winston and Strawn, LLP, and Jones Day argued before a federal appeals court that the Florida High School Athletic Association denied their client, Cambridge Christian School, the constitutional right to pray over the loudspeaker at the beginning of the state championship football game between two Christian Schools.
“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,” said Jeremy Dys, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute. “By banning the pre-game prayer over the loudspeaker, the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) sent a message to these students that prayer is wrong and something you should be ashamed of. That is dangerous and unconstitutional.”
Jesse Panuccio, of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, said, “For seven years, the FHSAA has defended its unconstitutional prayer ban on the mistaken theory that permitting two Christian schools to pray over the religion would violation the Establishment Clause. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment means that the government can tolerate religion without endorsing it.”
In 2015, the Florida High School Athletic Association forbade First Liberty Institute client Cambridge Christian School from praying over the loudspeaker at the Citrus Bowl ahead of the state championship football game. The FHSAA stated that because the stadium was city-owned and the FHSAA a government actor, it would violate the Constitution to allow two private Christian schools to pray over the stadium loudspeaker for less than a minute. In November 2019, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Cambridge Christian School’s argument that its free speech and free exercise rights were violated have merit and should proceed. But in 2022, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida issued a judgment in FHSAA’s favor. In August 2022, Cambridge Christian again appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
To arrange an interview, contact John Manning at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Video Credit: Polyphonic Image, courtesy of First Liberty
Photo Credit: Beth Dare Photography, courtesy of First Liberty