First Liberty Defends Cambridge Christian School in Federal Appeals Court

June 30, 2023
Cambridge Oral Argument | First Liberty Institute

by Jorge Gomez • 4 min read

This week, First Liberty argued our Prayer Out of Bounds? case in federal appeals court. We represent Cambridge Christian School in Tampa. You can listen to the full argument here.

In 2015, Cambridge Christian competed against Jacksonville’s University Christian School in a state championship football game. The game was played at the Citrus Bowl, now known as Orlando’s Camping World Stadium. Consistent with their religious traditions, the two schools asked to lead a brief, pregame prayer over the stadium loudspeaker.

The Florida High School Athletic Association, however, prohibited them from doing so, stating that the prayer would be an impermissible “endorsement” of religion by the state, because it would take place on government property.

Arguing on Tuesday before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, our legal team made the case that the prayer ban is unconstitutional.

“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. “By banning the pre-game prayer over the loudspeaker, the Florida High School Athletic Association sent a message to these students that prayer is wrong and something you should be ashamed of. That is dangerous and unconstitutional.”

Jesse Panuccio with the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner is our volunteer attorney who argued the case. He 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 loudspeaker would violate the Establishment Clause. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment means that the government can tolerate religion without endorsing it.”

At the argument, an attorney for the Florida High School Athletic Association insisted to the court that the case may be moot because of a new state law allowing for prayers.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that reorganizes the association’s board of directors and allows sports teams to provide brief opening remarks, including prayers, before high school athletic contests. It also bars the athletic association from controlling, monitoring or reviewing the content of opening remarks.

This law is a step in the right direction for the religious expression of students. But our attorneys argued the association needs to abandon the outdated “endorsement” policy it has maintained since 2015 and make it clear that our clients may offer prayers over the loudspeaker. We pointed out that unless the association officially revokes its position, the new state law may not ensure legal relief for our clients. That’s because the association justified the prayer ban as required, claiming the prayer would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“That is a constitutional judgment that they’ve come to and that would override any state law according to them,” Panuccio told the Court. “As far as we can tell, the prayer ban is still in place.”

Please pray for the judges as they deliberate and write their decision. This case presents a huge opportunity for religious freedom. The outcome could protect the right of students across the country to express their faith.

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Courthouse News Service: Florida Christian School Asks 11th Circuit to Overturn Ruling Against Pre-Game Prayer

Law 360: Fla. School Asks 11th Circuit to Revive Loudspeaker Prayer Suit

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