By Jeremy Days, Deputy General Counsel at First Liberty
Florida city reminded the First Amendment protects religious speech of expression everywhere in America, including the Citrus Bowl
Earlier in 2018, we witnessed the passing of an American icon, the Rev. Billy Graham, whose fame, beyond his years of faithful preaching, stems largely from the crusades that bore his name and that he presented around the world.
Most Americans have some memory of Graham standing on the dais erected over the end zone of a packed sports stadium, preaching the Gospel message of Jesus Christ over the stadium’s speakers, prompting millions of people to “come forward.”
Orlando’s Camping World Stadium is just such a stadium. When it opened as the Tangerine Bowl in 1969, Graham’s crusade christened it. He would return in 1983 when the City of Orlando — the owners of the stadium then, as now — renamed it the Citrus Bowl.
It was also the venue for a 2015 state football championship game between two private Christian high schools. The schools, Tampa’s Cambridge Christian School and Jacksonville’s University Christian School, hold a lengthy tradition of opening their games with a prayer over the loudspeaker.
It’s more than a tradition; it’s the means by which players on the field and their families in the bleachers commune together with the Almighty prior to kickoff. So they asked the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) to continue that tradition before the championship game began.
But the FHSAA said no. Actually, it was more than a blunt “no.” In a lengthy email, the FHSAA predicated its decision on the religious viewpoint to be expressed over the city-owned, state-controlled stadium speakers.
The FHSAA feared that allowing a 30-second prayer over the loudspeaker — the same loudspeaker that once carried the baritone voice of the late Rev. Billy Graham — would violate the U.S. Constitution.