A District Court in Florida has dismissed a lawsuit brought on behalf of a Christian school that was very angry their football team couldn’t use a loudspeaker to broadcast prayers during a championship game at a state facility.
Here’s the relevant background: The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) has a simple rule when it comes to reciting Christian prayers over the loudspeakers before football games: Don’t do it. It’s a fair policy considering it echoes what the U.S. Supreme Court said more than 16 years ago.
In December of 2015, two private Christian schools made it all the way to the championship game in the state’s class 2A football playoffs. That’s when Cambridge Christian’s head of school Tim Euler asked state officials if he could say a prayer over the loudspeaker. The other school was okay with this, too. But that didn’t matter to FHSAA’s director:
FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing responded that because the Citrus Bowl is a public facility, the organization could not allow a prayer over the loudspeaker. The state championship game was also televised.
Made perfect sense. This game was overseen and managed by the state, even if Christian schools were involved, and that meant following state law. Both teams were obviously allowed to pray before the game, and after the game, and during halftime, and silently whenever the hell they wanted to. They could even pull a Tebow during the game. And because they were private schools, the coaches could legally join in.
But they just couldn’t pray over the loudspeakers.
At the time, lawyers from First Liberty, a Christian legal defense group, threatened to sue:
[Attorney Jeremy] Dys demanded a letter of apology from the FHSAA within 30 days. If that does not happen, he said, he is prepared to fight the issue in federal court.
“Either apologize now or in front of a judge,” Dys said.
There was nothing to apologize for, though. The state didn’t do anything wrong. They didn’t block kids from praying. They merely said a public loudspeaker in a public facility couldn’t be used to broadcast prayer during a state event.
This isn’t hard to understand unless you work for a Christian legal group, and your paycheck requires you to scream “Persecution!!!” three times a day.
First Liberty ultimately filed a federal lawsuit against the state organization:
First Liberty filed the lawsuit along with lawyers from the firm of Greenberg Traurig. On Tuesday, attorneys held a news conference with Tim Euler, head of school for Cambridge Christian.
“I believe in our Constitution,” Euler said. “I believe in our government. I believe that in time of need, we pray. And to say a prayer of thanksgiving prior to an athletic event should not be any different than Congress opening up their meetings in prayer.“
It was an awful analogy, in part because school events, unlike Congress, have a captive student audience. Congressional prayers also, at least in theory, can be delivered by people of any faith or no faith.
The teams both prayed on the field, according to the complaint, but spectators and fans couldn’t hear or participate.
“Thus, by denying access to the loudspeaker,” the suit states, “the FHSAA denied the students, parents and fans in attendance the right to participate in the players’ prayer or to otherwise come together in prayer as one Christian community.”
So… they couldn’t pray on their own when the team was doing it? Does God only work if there’s a booming voice in the mix? The FHSAA didn’t stop anybody from praying on their own, at the same time.
As I said earlier, the Supreme Court has already litigated this. It was hard to see how this lawsuit could be successful.
“The only reason the FHSAA said no is because it was religious speech,” Dys said. “You cannot banish religious speech to the broom closets. The lesson that the FHSAA is teaching every student athlete is somehow that prayer is wrong. That’s incorrect and it needs to end.“
That’s a lot of bullshit in a couple of sentences. The FHSAA wasn’t selectively banning religious speech. The students also couldn’t use the loudspeakers to tell the crowd to “Vote for Donald Trump.” The loudspeakers were to be used for the game, plain and simple.
The problem was that the Christians weren’t satisfied with that. They felt prayers only counted if they were done as publicly and loudly as possible. (Just like the Bible says.)
Atheists soon got involved in the case. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Central Florida Freethought Community filed an amicus brief with the court, urging the dismissal of the lawsuit back in October.
The speech in question is government speech, not private speech. Thus, the Plaintiff does not have a right to commandeer the public address system at FHSAA championship competitions.
Cambridge Christian fails to cite any authority that establishes that teams that participate in state-run championship competitions have the right to disseminate their own messages over the public address system. Without legal authority or factual support establishing that a forum for private speakers was created by the FHSAA, Cambridge Christian cannot meet its initial burden of establishing that it has a right to speak via the public address system in the first place.
… Under the Establishment Clause, the government may not endorse religion. There is no exception for when most members of the audience would be receptive to the religious message. FHSAA cannot be the mouthpiece of religious organizations or be used to gather event attendees to engage in a communal expression of Christian religious worship.
The judge’s recommendation likewise found that the prayer would be viewed as coming from the government. Sansone wrote that she reached “the inescapable conclusion that the nature of the entirety of the speech, including the proposed prayer, throughout the championship game over the loudspeaker is government speech.”
Cambridge Christian’s free exercise claim was also recommended for dismissal. The report noted that the suit did not include “a single allegation that Cambridge Christian or any of its members were deprived of their right to pray at the championship game. On the contrary, both Cambridge Christian’s team and the opposing team were permitted to pray together at the most centrally focused and public area of the stadium — the 50-yard line.” Sansone wrote that she “remains at a loss as to how the FHSAA’s refusal to permit Cambridge Christian to utilize the FHSAA-controlled loudspeaker to broadcast the teams’ pre-game prayer violated Cambridge Christian’s or its members’ rights under the Free Exercise Clause.“
Yesterday, District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell accepted that recommendation and called for the case to be dismissed.
The entirety of the circumstances lead to the conclusion that speech over the loudspeaker at the Stadium during the championship game was government speech. Therefore, the government was not required to open its loudspeaker to allow Cambridge Christian to broadcast its prayer. Its decision not to do so is not subject to the Free Speech Clause. Accordingly, Cambridge Christian cannot state a claim under these constitutional provisions.
… As previously noted, the FHSAA did not prevent or discourage Cambridge Christian or the spectators at the Stadium from praying, or from disseminating that prayer to all in attendance. Moreover, even if denial of access to the loudspeaker did burden a religious belief of Cambridge Christian, such a burden did not amount to a substantial one, but simply inconvenienced the belief, because Cambridge Christian was not denied alternate means of engaging in communal prayer.
As far as I can tell, First Liberty hasn’t addressed the judge’s ruling online. Their “flair” on the website still says they’re “fighting” this case, not that they’ve “Lost Miserably.”
But I’m sure they’re already writing a fundraising letter soaked in fake Christian tears.