Reading Time: 6 minutes

Yesterday, a U.S. district judge said that a Christian high school cannot hijack the public address system before a state-sponsored playoff game in order to spread Christian propaganda via a pre-game prayer because that could easily be construed as an endorsement of religion. It’s the latest decision in a case that’s been in the legal system for several years.

This is all about a public pre-game prayer

The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) has a simple rule when it comes to reciting Christian prayers over the loudspeakers before football games: You can’t do it. It’s a fair policy considering it echoes what the U.S. Supreme Court said nearly two decades 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.

That made perfect sense. This game was overseen and managed by the state, even if Christian schools were involved, and that meant everyone had to follow 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. Athletes could even pull a Tim Tebow during the game if they felt like it. And because they were private schools, the coaches could legally join in.

They just couldn’t pray over the loudspeakers. And as we all known by now, conservative Christians don’t care about prayers unless they can turn them into public spectacles. What’s the point of praying if no one else sees or hears you doing it?

At the time, lawyers from First Liberty, a Christian legal defense group, threatened to sue the state:

[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. Those simple instructions aren’t hard to understand unless you work for a Christian legal group and your paycheck requires you to scream “Persecution!!!” three times a day.

The legal history of this case

It wasn’t surprising, then, when First Liberty ultimately filed a federal lawsuit against the state organization:

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… attendees 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, even at the same time as the teams. But the Christians schools demanded state-sanctioned communal prayer. First Liberty’s argument boiled down to the idea that it was unfair for the state to prohibit religious speech over the loudspeakers when they didn’t prohibit any other kind… even though religious speech was always the only kind that created this sort of problem. (It’s not like schools were requesting and getting a green light to make political endorsements before big games.)

“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.

Eventually, atheists got involved. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Central Florida Freethought Community filed an amicus brief with the court in 2016, urging the dismissal of the lawsuit.

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.

In February of 2017, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone recommended dismissing the case, basically saying Christians weren’t being persecuted in any way:

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.

In June of that year, 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.

First Liberty appealed that decision, and in 2019, a three-judge panel that included one appointee of Donald Trump said that Judge Honeywell “was too quick to pull the trigger” when it came to saying the school’s free speech and free exercise rights weren’t violated. They added:

We cannot say whether these claims will ultimately succeed, but Cambridge Christian has plausibly alleged enough to enter the courtroom and be heard.

So… it wasn’t a victory. But it wasn’t a dismissal either. Basically, the case was returned to the judge so she could give it another look with the appellate panel’s concerns in mind.

The judge said “no constitutional violation occurred”

Yesterday, after some additional legal maneuvers from both sides, Judge Honeywell issued another ruling on this case… and, once again, dismissed it. It was a victory for the state, just as we could’ve predicted years ago.

Her 38-page ruling made clear that “no constitutional violation occurred.” She even called them out on their bullshit, like when she pointed out how the Christian school never asked to take over the PA system when they played non-Christian opponents.

… contrary to [Cambridge Christian School’s] argument, communal prayer over a PA system is not the typical practice at events not hosted by CCS or not occurring on CCS’s campus. The evidence shows that when visiting non-Christian schools, CCS defers to the home school’s tradition and CCS would not request prayer over the PA system… It was acceptable to CCS to not pray over the loudspeaker when it played an away game at a non-Christian school because, according to Former Head of School Tim Euler, “that’s honoring the facilities that you go to.”

Ultimately, the judge wasn’t buying any of this Christian persecution nonsense:

The question before the Court is whether communal pre-game prayer is a protected “belief,” rather than a mere “preference.” On the facts of this case, the Court concludes that communal pregame prayer over the PA system is a preference of CCS’s, not a deeply rooted tradition that rises to the level of a sincerely held belief.

It’s a result any church/state attorney could have predicted years ago, but the lawyers at First Liberty are more interested in promoting Christian supremacy than accepting rules that are fair to everyone. Still, it’s the right decision even if it took years to arrive at it.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Central Florida Freethought Community celebrated the decision:

David Williamson of the Central Florida Freethought Community says of the ruling, “All supporters of religious freedom should be thrilled the court found in favor of players, spectators, and anyone who participates in Florida sports.”

What makes the Christian school’s challenge even more outrageous is that the teams had met at the 50-yard line before the game to pray, as the court ruling pointed out.

“With at least 32 percent of teenagers identifying as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’” points out FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, “it is incumbent on the state’s athletic association to ensure that student rights of conscience are protected. The only way to do that is to keep state events free of government-sponsored religious ritual and indoctrination, as 75 years of case law requires.”

First Liberty has not yet commented as of this writing. But I suspect they’ll find some way to attack the judge or the ruling as blatantly anti-Christian… even though the decision explained in great detail why any claims of religious persecution were ludicrous.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier)

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.