By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — In a long-running legal battle, a federal judge has rejected arguments that the Florida High School Athletic Association improperly prevented Christian schools from offering a prayer over a stadium loudspeaker before a 2015 state championship football game.
U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell issued a 38-page ruling Thursday that said the association, the governing body for high-school sports, is a “state actor” and did not violate First Amendment rights when it refused to allow a prayer over the public-address system before a game between Tampa’s Cambridge Christian School and Jacksonville’s University Christian School.
Cambridge Christian filed the lawsuit, which the Tampa-based Honeywell dismissed in 2017. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 overturned the dismissal and sent the case back to Honeywell for further consideration.
Thursday’s ruling said the case “is not about whether two Christian schools may pray together at a football game,” noting that players and coaches met on the field of Orlando’s Camping World Stadium to pray before and after the game.
“The issue before the court is whether the First Amendment required the FHSAA (the association) to grant the teams unrestricted access to the PA system to deliver the prayer over the loudspeaker during the pregame,” Honeywell wrote. “Thus, the questions to be answered are whether the inability to pray over the loudspeaker during the pregame of the state championship final football game violated CCS’s (Cambridge Christian’s) First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. … (The) court concludes that the First Amendment does not apply because the speech at issue is government speech, but even if some portion of the speech is considered private speech, the court finds no constitutional violation occurred.”
Honeywell added that the “threshold question is whether the speech over the PA system is government speech or private speech. If the speech is government speech, the First Amendment does not apply and the inquiry goes no further. … (The) pregame speech over the PA system at the state hosted championship final football game is government speech.”
During a December hearing, Jesse Panuccio, an attorney representing Cambridge Christian, argued that the FHSAA displayed “viewpoint discrimination and arbitrariness” in its decision to block the prayer.
Part of the school’s argument was that the FHSAA allowed a pre-game prayer over the loudspeaker at a 2012 state championship at the same stadium.
“There are two data points, two times that schools requested to pray at the class 2A championship game. And in 50 percent of them, the FHSAA approved the request. That is arbitrary application,” Panuccio said.
But Honeywell indicated that prayers before the 2012 championship game or playoff games did not change her view that decisions about the use of the public-address system at the 2015 game involved government speech. Advertisements and other announcements over the system were scripted.
“As for the single occurrence of prayer in the 2012 script, the court is not persuaded that the one incident creates a ‘history’ of private speech,” she wrote. “While there is record evidence that prayer occurred in the 2012 Class 2A football championship final pregame, the isolated incident of prayer against the backdrop of a decade’s worth of football championship final scripts without any mention of prayer is an aberration which cannot be relied upon to evidence a history of private speech. Indeed, at oral argument, the FHSAA acknowledged the 2012 prayer was permitted in error.”