TAMPA — A Christian school in Tampa has signaled it will file a federal lawsuit against the Florida High School Athletics Association after the school’s headmaster was told he couldn’t say a public prayer before the football team’s state championship game in Orlando.
Administrators from the Cambridge Christian School, a K-12 institution at 6101 North Habana Ave., sent a demand letter to the FHSAA on Tuesday with help from the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm from Texas that specializes in religious liberty rights.
The letter asks for an apology for unlawfully censoring the school’s private speech, as well as formal recognition from the FHSAA that students in Florida schools have a right to pray in public. If the FHSAA doesn’t respond in 30 days, the school will take the issue to Tampa’s federal court.
“When we had been told initially that we weren’t allowed to pray we were in shock. Why would this even be a question?” said 10th-grade student and varsity football kicker Jacob Enns. “We just assumed it was our constitutional right or something normal we would be allowed to do, and we really learned that sometimes we might have a difficulty in doing what the Lord wants us to do but we need to stand up for what’s right to set an example for others.”
Dec. 4 was the first time Cambridge Christian School’s football team had played in a state championship game in its 51-year history. It was also the first time the school had been told it couldn’t pray before a game.
Cambridge’s Lancers and the University Christian School Knights of Jacksonville were denied their request to have a prayer said over the public announcement system before they faced off in the 2015 2A state championship game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando — a game hosted and sanctioned by the FHSAA.
Earlier that week, both schools’ headmasters requested the prayer verbally and then wrote an email to FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing requesting Cambridge Headmaster Tim Euler be allowed to start the game with a broadcast invocation.
“It is obvious that the occasion to pray and thank the Lord for his blessings over our school and student-athletes is one of utmost importance to us,” University Christian’s Headmaster, Heath Nivens, wrote in his letter to the FHSAA. “Our administrative team at UCS is in full support of having Mr. Euler pray before our competition over the loud speaker. Furthermore, I, too, agree that the fans from both schools and those in attendance would be in full understanding given the core values of both institutions.”
Dearing responded that federal law prevented the agency from granting the request because the teams were playing in a public center, paid for largely with public tax dollars and owned by the city of Orlando.
Florida law deems the FHSAA a “state actor” prohibited from sanctioning prayer, Dearing said.
The students were still allowed to recite a prayer on the football field.
“After consulting the association attorney, and his review of 18 pages of case summaries, I’m afraid I am not able to comply with your wish,” Dearing wrote. “I totally understand the desire, and why your request is made. However, for me to grant the wish could subject this Association to tremendous legal entanglements.”
Requests for comment from the FHSAA were not immediately returned Tuesday.
The school says more legal entanglements will stem from the FHSAA’s refusal.
Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for Liberty Institute, said the FHSAA’s actions were blatantly illegal and set a dangerous precedent for government censorship of free speech.
“Religious liberty is not something the government just gives to us, its something God has given to us, and the government is duty bound by the First Amendment to respect it,” Dys said.
Reciting a prayer before the football game shouldn’t have been viewed any differently as when students nationwide pray around their school’s flagpoles for “See You At The Pole Day,” or when the state Legislature begins its meetings with a prayer, Dys said.
The group’s letter to Dearing cites 17 court cases on similar issues of free speech, as well as other instances where the Supreme Court called the censoring of religious speech “an egregious form of content discrimination.”
Because the prayer would have been an act of private speech from Euler, and not sponsored by the government, prohibiting it in any way violated the Constitution, Dys said.
At the game, the two teams came together in center field and, together with spectators and coaches, recited the Lord’s prayer in what they called an “act of civil disobedience.”
“It’s what I believe our founding fathers would have done as well,” Enns said.
Euler said he views the attention surrounding the issue as an opportunity to do the same thing he hoped to accomplish with a simple prayer in December: make a public declaration of faith.
University Christian has offered its support to the school, and students have felt emboldened to “confront the culture for Christ,” he said.
“It was frustrating, it hurt, we were upset about it, but we firmly believe this is something to be resolved and we firmly believe the Lord will be magnified and glorified throughout this entire process,” Euler said.
As for the game, University Christian won the championship, 61-16.
“As good as that team was,” Euler said, “it would have taken a lot of prayer that day.”