The Florida Education Department has publicly shared its concern after the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) denied two Christian high schools the opportunity to pray on the loudspeaker before a football game at the Citrus Bowl Stadium, according to the Christian Post.
“Policies that are overbroad or restrictive may deny students their constitutional right to private religious expression,” said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran in a letter sent to the FHSAA. “Such policies must be immediately repealed and replaced with policies that are consistent with the religious freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution.”
He continued, stating that the decision concerning Cambridge Christian School of Tampa and University Christian School of Jacksonville’s requests was “deeply troubling” and that “the state must not censor private religious speech of its students.”
However, this is not the first time that the FHSAA has barred Christian schools from praying over a loudspeaker. In 2015, two other Christian schools—Cambridge Christian and University Christian—were similarly rejected.
“In Florida Statutes, the FHSAA (host and coordinator of the event) is legally a ‘State Actor,’ we cannot legally permit or grant permission for such an activity,” said Roger Dearing, the head of the FHSAA in 2015. Because the Citrus Bowl was “predominantly paid for with public tax dollars,” it would be unlawful to allow any form of religious speech over the loudspeaker.
Two courts agreed with the FHSAA when Cambridge Christian brought a lawsuit against them.
“… the entirety of the speech over the stadium loudspeaker was government speech and that, even if it were not, the stadium loudspeaker is a non-public forum,” said District Court Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell. “Therefore, the FHSAA was permitted to deny Cambridge Christian’s request to use it to broadcast prayer during a school sporting event organized and governed by a state entity.”
As the case has continued to climb up the appeals courts, however, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently stated a different opinion.
“Taking the complaint in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, as we must at this stage in the proceedings, the schools’ claims for relief under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses have been adequately and plausibly pled,” said Eleventh Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus. “And while we agree with the district court that the loudspeaker was a nonpublic forum, we conclude that Cambridge Christian has plausibly alleged that it was arbitrarily and haphazardly denied access to the forum in violation of the First Amendment.”
Photo courtesy: Ben White/Unsplash
Mikaela Mathews is a freelance writer and editor based in Dallas, TX. She was the editor of a local magazine and a contributing writer for the Galveston Daily News and Spirit Magazine.