A private religious school has the right to pray before football matches


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The First Amendment protects the right of a private religious school to pray before a football match, especially when both teams are from religious schools and have the same tradition of pre-match prayer over loudspeakers. Yet the Florida High School Athletic Association, the state governing body for high school athletics in Florida, believes such private religious speech is prohibited by the same First Amendment.

In 2015, the Cambridge Christian School in Tampa high school football team qualified for the championship game to face University Christian School in Jacksonville. Both private schools are members of the FHSAA, which hosted the game.

In accordance with FHSAA policy, the stadium speaker was used to broadcast a series of private messages during the game, including announcements, promotions and school halftime shows. Nonetheless, the FHSAA denied Cambridge Christian the opportunity to broadcast a specific message: a pre-game prayer. For Cambridge Christian, common pre-game prayer is an important exercise in faith; he allows the whole school to come together in fraternity and solemnity before an important event for his team.

Jesse Panuccio [ DUPONT PHOTOGRAPHERS ]

Despite Cambridge Christian’s tradition of pre-game community prayer and the FHSAA’s decision to allow loudspeaker prayer in previous years, the FHSAA told Cambridge Christian that due to the “separation state and church “, a public stadium is” prohibited “. for prayer, which was “quite simply prohibited by law.”

It is not the law. The Constitution protects the right to believe, exercise and express religious faith, even when this occurs on government property. As the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly stated, accepting the free exercise of religion is not the same as establishing religion, and the state cannot discriminate against point-of-view rhetoric or enforce arbitrary restrictions, as he has done here. And the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals noted nearly 20 years ago that the free-practice clause “does not allow the state to confine religious discourse to whispers or ban it in broom cupboards ”.

To defend his rights, Cambridge Christian filed a complaint. The federal trial court initially dismissed the case, but the appeals court overturned it and remanded it for further consideration, explaining that Cambridge Christian had “plausibly pleaded” its claims for redress in under the First Amendment – far from the FHSAA’s claim The Cambridge Christian prayer was “just not legally permitted”.

To his credit, state education commissioner Richard Corcoran recently urged the FHSAA to reconsider its policies and adopt an approach “compatible with … religious freedoms.” Hopefully the FHSAA will hear his appeal.

But if not, the Florida legislature has the capacity to correct this mistake. The legislative session begins on January 14. Our lawmakers, who created the FHSAA in law, can pass a new policy to ensure that religious students and schools no longer face this kind of discrimination in Florida high school sport.

Hoping that the state will change course soon. Meanwhile, Cambridge Christian will continue to defend the rights of his school community in federal court, taking the case as far as necessary.

Jesse Panuccio is an attorney representing Cambridge Christian and is the former third-rank public servant in the United States Department of Justice.

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