A federal appeals court this week overturned a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit that accuses Florida officials of violating the religious freedom of two Christian high schools seeking to read a prayer over a loudspeaker before their championship football game.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned, in part, a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Cambridge Christian School Inc. of Tampa against the Florida High School Athletics Association.
The lawsuit says the athletics association refused to allow players from Cambridge and another Christian high school to read a pre-game prayer over a loudspeaker at their state football championship in Orlando in 2015.
“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,” said Jeremy Das, an attorney for First Liberty, a law firm specializing in religious freedom that is representing Cambridge.
A three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit rendered a unanimous decision, which allows the partially revived lawsuit to move forward in U.S. District Court. Portions of the lawsuit remain dismissed.
The three-judge panel concluded that the lower court had ruled correctly in finding the overhead speaker in a stadium to be a “nonpublic forum,” but state officials interrupted a communal prayer that both teams were accustomed to saying before games.
“As we see it, the district court was too quick to dismiss all of Cambridge Christian’s claims out of hand,” wrote Judge Stanley Marcus, who was appointed to the federal judiciary by President Reagan and to the 11th Circuit by President Clinton.
Attorneys for Cambridge said that school officials had been allowed to pray over the public address system before regular season games. Athletics association officials denied their request to do before the championship game.
State officials said the teams could have used a bullhorn or prayer cards instead of the overhead speakers in the stadium, which held nearly 2,000 people for the championship contest.
“It is not at all obvious to us that a bullhorn or prayer cards would unite the players, coaches, and fans in communal prayer inside a large football stadium, although further development of the record may show otherwise,” Judge Marcus wrote.
Only players for Cambridge and its opponent, University Christian School, were allowed to pray at the 50-yard line before the start of their Division 2A football championship in 2015.
A spokeswoman for the athletics association did not answer questions about its policies and referred queries to the organization’s legal representatives.
The question for the court, the panel said, was whether the messages read over the loudspeaker were entirely “government speech” or a mix of “expressive speech.”
The court alluded to instances of private messages displayed on purportedly public resources, such as license states or monuments on public areas.
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