A U.S. federal judge has ruled that the government can ban a Christian private school from offering a public prayer at a state-run championship, saying the First Amendment does not apply to the unique situation.
At issue was the 2015 Florida 2A division championship football game between two religious schools, Cambridge Christian School and University Christian School.
Both schools wanted to offer a pre-game prayer over the loudspeakers, but the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) declined their request. The game was played at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.
Cambridge Christian then filed a lawsuit, asserting its constitutional rights were violated.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell sided with the state.
“The issue before the court is whether the First Amendment required the FHSAA (the association) to grant the teams unrestricted access to the PA system to deliver the prayer over the loudspeaker during the pregame,” Honeywell wrote. “Thus, the questions to be answered are whether the inability to pray over the loudspeaker during the pregame of the state championship final football game violated CCS’s (Cambridge Christian’s) First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.”
The question, the judge wrote, is “whether the speech over the PA system is government speech or private speech.”
“If the speech is government speech, the First Amendment does not apply and the inquiry goes no further,” she wrote. “… (The) pregame speech over the PA system at the state hosted championship final football game is government speech.”
Attorneys for the school noted that a 2012 championship game, held at the same stadium, included a pre-game prayer, WLRN reported. But Honeywell, who was nominated by President Barack Obama, said the 2012 game did not change what happened in other years.
“As for the single occurrence of prayer in the 2012 script, the court is not persuaded that the one incident creates a ‘history’ of private speech,” she wrote. “While there is record evidence that prayer occurred in the 2012 Class 2A football championship final pregame, the isolated incident of prayer against the backdrop of a decade’s worth of football championship final scripts without any mention of prayer is an aberration which cannot be relied upon to evidence a history of private speech. Indeed, at oral argument, the FHSAA acknowledged the 2012 prayer was permitted in error.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/J. Bryson
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.