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Cambridge Christian School files federal lawsuit against state athletic association over denial of pregame prayer

From left, Greenberg Traurig lawyer Adam Foslid, Cambridge Christian head of school Tim Euler and First Liberty Institute lawyer Jeremy Dys announce the federal suit in Tampa on Tuesday.
Published Sep. 28, 2016

TAMPA — The team had prayed before every football game. As players took to the field in Orlando for a shot at the championship, they prayed once more, this time with opponents.

But when they spoke, few could hear them.

Days before the Dec. 4 game, the Florida High School Athletic Association had told Cambridge Christian School its athletes could not use the loudspeaker at Camping World Stadium to broadcast their prayer to fans and spectators.

That, the Tampa school said, is unconstitutional.

On Tuesday, Cambridge Christian filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the association violated religious freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

"For several months we've been working to try to correct the situation, to no avail," said attorney Jeremy Dys of First Liberty Institute, which specializes in religious liberty advocacy.

The FHSAA is the governing body for high school athletics in Florida. The organization arranges athletic games for teams at its more than 800 member schools, which include both public and private institutions, secular and nonsecular.

First Liberty filed the lawsuit along with lawyers from the firm of Greenberg Traurig. On Tuesday, attorneys held a news conference with Tim Euler, head of school for Cambridge Christian.

"I believe in our Constitution," Euler said. "I believe in our government. I believe that in time of need, we pray. And to say a prayer of thanksgiving prior to an athletic event should not be any different than Congress opening up their meetings in prayer."

Prayer is not banned at public athletic events, as long as the activity is student led. Supreme Court rulings have stated that school officials cannot be involved in promoting religion or establishing set times for prayers during events.

The suit stems from a Division 2A state championship football game that Cambridge Christian played against University Christian School of Jacksonville.

Before the game, Cambridge Christian and a competing team planned to lead the students, teachers and fans in prayer. The FHSAA denied a request to use the loudspeaker, the suit states, because "the proposed private speech was religious in nature."

Roger Dearing, executive director, said his association could not legally grant permission, because it was a "state actor" operating in a public facility.

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."

In the weeks that followed, the school sent a letter to the association asking for an apology and acknowledgment that students have a right to pray in public. But an FHSAA spokesman only reiterated the earlier position.

On Monday, Cambridge Christian proposed a 30-second period for uncensored introductions by each team competing at championship games. The FHSAA took no immediate action.

A spokesman said Tuesday the association could not comment because it had not received a copy of the lawsuit.

The suit seeks adoption of a "content neutral" policy for future events, meaning it would neither restrict nor encourage religious speech.

"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."

Cambridge Christian is a private religious school serving children from prekindergarten through high school.

The football team, the Lancers, was 13-0 heading into the championship game. They lost to University Christian, 61-16.

Times staff writer Bob Putnam contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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