Leaders at a Christian high school demanded an apology in late January from the athletic board that forbade a pregame prayer at a state championship football game in December.
Tampa’s Cambridge Christian School was getting ready to face Jacksonville’s University Christian School in the Florida High School Athletic Association’s (FHSAA) 2A state championship, played at the city-owned Citrus Bowl in Orlando, when Cambridge requested permission to pray before the kickoff.
“It seemed like a simple request to me,” Cambridge headmaster Tim Euler told me. “Both schools had done this at the start of all their games. The fans would be from both the schools.”
Euler wrote an email to the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) two days before the game to clarify what his athletic director had told him earlier: No prayer allowed. He again requested permission to pray.
Roger Dearing, the executive director of the FHSAA was apologetic, but again gave a firm no: The facility, paid for by tax dollars, was off-limits for public prayer.
“I totally understand the desire,” Dearing said in an email to the school, “[but] for me to grant the wish could subject this association to tremendous legal entanglements.”
Euler said he was disappointed, but told the two coaches the news. The coaches informed the players, who hatched a plan to pray from the field.
Right before the kickoff, players from both teams left their 40-yard lines to form a huddle by the stands, where fans joined in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Attorney Jeremy Dys with Liberty Institute, which represents Cambridge Christian, said the civil disobedience was necessary in the minds of the players, coaches, and fans to carry on the longstanding tradition of praying before a game.
“When the government denies your civil rights, you’re allowed to protest about that,” he told me. “They acted in a little bit of defiance of the FHSAA, and prayed.”
Cambridge followed that defiance with a letter requesting a formal apology from the FHSAA and a statement that the group will abide by the law regarding religious liberty and private religious speech.
Though the prayer would have echoed over public property, Dys argues Euler would have provided the prayer, making it private speech.
Lawfully, the letter states private religious speech at public facilities is protected. The Supreme Court has ruled authorities cannot bar someone’s use of government resources merely because of religious viewpoint or speech.
In the 1993 case of Lamb’s Chapel vs. Center Moriches Union Free School District, a local church requested use of school space to show a Focus on the Family film series.
The school denied the request, but the Supreme Court ruled “government violates the First Amendment when it denies access to a speaker solely to suppress the point of view he espouses on an otherwise includible subject.”
The Cambridge letter comes on the heels of football coach Joe Kennedy’s suspension from Bremerton High School in Washington after he kneeled and prayed silently at the 50-yard line after a game. Kennedy filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming the school violated his right to exercise his religion. Another coach was allowed to do a Buddhist chant after games, but Kennedy’s superiors cited his “failure to follow district policy.”
Dys said an attorney in Florida spoke on the local news, saying if the schools there wanted to pray in public, they should have to form their own league.
“Apparently, you’ve got to go that far now,” Dys said. “That’s not the religious liberty that our Founding Fathers put in place. … For the government now to come in and censor that prayer, it not only violates the law, it teaches this horrible message to student athletes across the country that it’s wrong to pray in public.”
— by Samantha Gobba