The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday reversed a state ban on prayers at school championship athletic events.
The appeals court reversed a key part of a lower court’s decision endorsing a Florida High School Athletic Association decision.
The organization had prohibited two Christian schools from having a prayer over a loudspeaker at the Citrus Bowl prior to a state championship game.
But the appeals court said the complaint has merit and should proceed to trial.
“We are grateful to have won this appeal and look forward to presenting our case on behalf of Cambridge Christian School to the district court,” said Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty Institute. “The First Amendment protects the rights of students and teachers at a private Christian school to pray before a football game, especially when both teams are Christian and have a tradition of prayer before games.”
It was back in 2015 when Cambridge Christian School met University Christian School in the state championship football game.
“The FHSAA suggested that because the stadium was city-owned and the FHSAA a state agency, it would violate the Constitution to allow two private Christian schools to pray over a state-owned microphone for less than a minute,” the institute said.
In 2017, a judge sided with the state regulators, but First Liberty went to the appeals court.
The court decided there certainly is enough doubt to have more hearings or a trial if needed.
“As we see it, the district court was too quick to dismiss all of Cambridge Christian’s claims out of hand. 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,” the appeals ruling said.
“There are too many open factual questions for us to say with confidence that the allegations cannot be proven as a matter of law. The question of whether all speech over the microphone was government speech is a heavily fact-intensive one that looks at the history of the government’s use of the medium for communicative purposes, the implication of government endorsement of messages carried over that medium, and the degree of government control over those messages.
“Here, the history factor weights against finding government speech and the control factor is indeterminate, so, based on this limited record, we find it plausible that the multitude of messages delivered over the loudspeaker should be viewed as private, not government, speech.”
Also, the FHSAA might have infringed on Cambridge’s free exercise of religion.
Both schools had asked for permission for the loudspeaker prayer.
The teams were able to meet on the field and pray before the game, but “fans were unable to hear.”