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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

After Citrus Bowl incident, Florida senator might propose law about prayer at high school sports games

The Florida Senate opens its morning session on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, with a moment of prayer. Because the Florida Senate and other government entities engage in public prayer, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, questions why Christian schools who want to broadcast a prayer at high school sports events aren't allowed to do so.

Kristen M. Clark / Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

The Florida Senate opens its morning session on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, with a moment of prayer. Because the Florida Senate and other government entities engage in public prayer, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, questions why Christian schools who want to broadcast a prayer at high school sports events aren't allowed to do so.

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State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, says he might wade into the controversial issue of prayer at high school athletic events during this legislative session.

Brandes' interest in the topic stems from an incident in December when the Florida High School Athletic Association wouldn't allow two Christian schools -- Tampa's Cambridge Christian School and Jacksonville's University Christian School -- to broadcast a prayer over the public-announcement system before kickoff of the District 2-A Championship football game.

"We use the PA system here all of the time to pray in the Legislature," Brandes told the Herald/Times. "I’ve been at many events, political events or other events where people have offered a prayer or blessing or some other type of inspirational statement."

"I think if you have two Christian schools that are consenting, that using the PA system is not a major issue and that the state should stay out of it," he added.

Brandes broached the issue publicly on Thursday, when a Senate education committee was discussing a bill by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, that affects the FHSAA's state-designated governance of high school athletics. The discussion was minimal and quickly moved on when committee Chairman Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, told Brandes to keep his questions to the bill at hand.

But Roger Dearing, executive director for the FHSAA, explained to senators that the organization could not grant permission for the Christian schools to broadcast prayer, because the game was an FHSAA-sanctioned event at a public facility and because the FHSAA gets its governing authority through Florida law, which would make it a "state actor" in the public prayer.

"We told both schools, they could pray before the game, they could pray at halftime, they could pray after the game -– whatever they wanted to do with their teams," he said. "And they did. But you can’t get on the loud speaker at a public entity -- the Citrus Bowl in Orlando -- at an event that is sponsored by the FHSAA, a state actor, and lead the entire group in prayer."

The issue involves the doctrine of separation of church and state, stemming from freedom of religion granted under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And it's something the U.S. Supreme Court already ruled on 16 years ago, although it remains a contentious issue.

In a 6-3 ruling, justices deemed it unconstitutional in 2000 for students to pray over the loudspeakers before high school football games in a Texas school district.

Brandes told the Herald/Times that he's checking with Senate lawyers to see if the FHSAA's interpretation of that ruling is correct, but he said he's prepared to file an amendment of some kind to address the issue, if necessary. He said he would seek to attach it to either of the two FHSAA-related bills moving in the Senate for the 2016 session.

"The simple truth is: Let’s figure out whether there’s a legitimate issue here, whether there’s anything we can do at the state level and then move forward," he said.

[Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2016 2:04pm]

    

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