Federal judge to decide Cambridge Christian School’s pregame prayer lawsuit

The Tampa school sued the Florida High School Athletic Association after its football team was barred from broadcasting pregame prayer through stadium loudspeakers.
The Cambridge Christian Lancers run to the field in September 2019 to face the Admiral Farragut Blue Jackets at Skyway Park in Tampa.
The Cambridge Christian Lancers run to the field in September 2019 to face the Admiral Farragut Blue Jackets at Skyway Park in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 22, 2021|Updated Dec. 22, 2021

TAMPA — After more than five years, a federal judge is poised to decide whether the Florida High School Athletic Association violated the First Amendment rights of a Tampa Christian school when it prohibited broadcasting a pregame prayer during a championship game.

U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell heard final arguments Tuesday from the athletic association and Cambridge Christian School, 6101 N Habana Ave.

The lawsuit stems from a game on Dec. 4, 2015, at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, where Cambridge Christian played Jacksonville’s University Christian School for the 2015 class 2A state football championship.

All season, the Cambridge Christian Lancers had been pumping their pregame team prayer into the stands through stadium public address systems. But this time, the state’s governing body for high school athletics intervened.

The athletic association said teams could pray amongst themselves as long as students led the prayers. Allowing the prayer to go out over the stadium’s PA system would have been viewed as “government speech,” the association said, and would violate the principle of separation of church and state.

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

The Lancers lost the argument on the field and lost the game. But in the courtroom, the school has proved a persistent competitor.

Judge Honeywell had already heard the arguments presented in her courtroom Tuesday. After a nearly yearlong review, she rejected Cambridge Christian’s claims in 2017 and dismissed the case. But in November 2019, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned her ruling, issuing a 70-page decision that said Honeywell was “too quick to pull the trigger” in dismissing the school’s arguments.

“We cannot say whether these claims will ultimately succeed, but Cambridge Christian has plausibly alleged enough to enter the courtroom and be heard,” the decision by the Atlanta-based appeals court said.

National advocacy groups and politicians have thrown their support to the school. The Florida House passed a bill championing Cambridge Christian’s cause, but the measure died during a Senate hearing in April.

On Tuesday, Cambridge Christian attorney Jesse Panuccio pointed to a 2012 state championship, held in the same Orlando stadium, where the athletic association allowed a pregame prayer over the loudspeaker.

High school students “are capable of distinguishing between State-initiated, school-sponsored, or teacher-led religious speech on the one hand, and student-initiated, -led religious speech on the other,” Panuccio said in the school’s motion for summary judgment.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Tampa

Stay on top of what’s happening in Tampa

Subscribe to our free Tampa Times newsletter

You’ll get a roundup of the biggest Tampa community news twice a week.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Panuccio also argued that the athletic association has delivered messages of a religious nature on social media accounts in the past, wishing students a “Merry Christmas,” for example, or asking for “thoughts and prayers” following tragedy.

The athletic association also has used stadium public address systems to call for “secular invocations” like moments of silence before a game. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, the association asked crowds at championship games to “join together in mourning” and offer “positive thoughts” to victims’ families during a 20- to 30-second moment of silence.

In her own motion for summary judgment, athletic association attorney Judith Mercier said these examples are all state-condoned messages representing “the FHSAA’s speech” and not the religious speech of individuals or schools.

“The government-speech doctrine boils down to whether a government entity is speaking on its own behalf or is providing a forum for private speech,” the motion states.

A ruling in the case is expected within four months.