by Ethan Tong • 5 min read
This week, First Liberty filed an appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on behalf of our clients, Cambridge Christian School (CCS). The case involves two private Christian schools that competed for a state championship in 2015. In a brazen attack on religious freedom, the Florida High School Athletic Association prohibited them from using the city-owned microphone to offer a prayer before kickoff.
The game took place at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, more commonly known as the Citrus Bowl. This is the same venue where evangelist Billy Graham twice (in 1969 and 1983) preached and shared the Gospel message with thousands in attendance. In another twist of irony, two Christian schools played a championship game at this stadium in 2012 and were allowed to pray through the loudspeakers.
A federal district court ruled in favor of the athletic association earlier this year. The judge ruled that the prayer might be viewed as an endorsement of religion since the students would be praying on government property:
“The Court concludes that the First Amendment does not apply because the speech at issue is government speech, but even if some portion of the speech is considered private speech, the Court finds no constitutional violation occurred.”
Even more shocking, the judge questioned the sincerity of CCS’s religious beliefs:
“The Court concludes that communal pregame prayer over the PA system is a preference of CCS’s, not a deeply rooted tradition that rises to the level of a sincerely held belief.”
This is the same judge who ruled against the school in 2017. We appealed that decision. In 2019, a unanimous panel at the 11th Circuit sent the case back for reconsideration, stating the “the district court was too quick to dismiss all of Cambridge Christian’s claims out of hand.”
As we await a response to the most recent request, there are several reasons to be hopeful for a victory.
In First Liberty’s landmark victory for Coach Joe Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court held that private speech, even if occurring on government property, is doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment.
That means government cannot censor private religious expression. The decision correctly points out “the Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.” This wasn’t just a win for one coach, however. The ruling made it clear: coaches, teachers, students and employees in public schools across the country are free to live out and express their faith.
In addition to the Kennedy decision, the Court issued a unanimous ruling in Shurtleff v. Boston, holding that flying a religious flag outside a government building with government consent was not government endorsement of religion. When government opens a public forum, it cannot say every viewpoint is acceptable except for a religious one. That’s unconstitutional.
The 11th Circuit also held in Chandler v. Siegelman that the First Amendment “does not require the elimination of private speech endorsing religion in public places,” nor does it “permit the state to confine religious speech to whispers or banish it to broom closets. If it did, the exercise of one’s religion would not be free at all.”
What’s more, federal law protects students’ right to engage in religious practices—a protection that extends to important events such as graduation ceremonies or athletic competitions.
The outcome of CCS’s case is vitally important. It could impact the freedoms and rights of students and religious schools across the country. If state officials can discriminate against two private, Christian schools and prevent them from praying in public, it won’t be long before they pick and choose other types of speech to censor.
First Liberty needs your support to fight for Cambridge Christian in federal appeals court. After losing their religious freedom, our clients need a win—a victory that will affirm it’s perfectly legal for two private, religious schools to open their football games with a prayer. Give today and help us move the chains closer to victory!