TAMPA — Cambridge Christian had a banner football season in 2015. The Lancers went undefeated in the regular season for the first time and made the Class 2A state final. Only one thing tarnished the experience for the school, and its officials are demanding that the Florida High School Athletic Association make reparations for what they say was an impeding of the school's religious freedom.
Cambridge Christian head of school Tim Euler asked the FHSAA two days before the December state title game at Orlando's Citrus Bowl for permission to say a prayer over the loudspeaker before kickoff, says the Liberty Institute, a religious liberty advocacy and legal defense organization. It was something the Lancers had done all season before home games and during the playoffs, and fellow private school University Christian also was onboard with such a prayer.
FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing responded that because the Citrus Bowl is a public facility, the organization could not allow a prayer over the loudspeaker. The state championship game was also televised.
Liberty Institute senior counsel Jeremy Dys said Tuesday at the school that the FHSAA had no right to ban public prayer over the PA system.
"For the government to say 'No, you can't engage in that kind of speech' is wrong," Dys said. "When the government gets something wrong, they ought to apologize for it."
The teams were allowed to pray together on the field.
"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," Dearing said in a Times/Herald story Jan. 16. "And they did.
"But you can't get on the loudspeaker 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."
Dys demanded a letter of apology from the FHSAA within 30 days. If that does not happen, he said, he is prepared to fight the issue in federal court.
"Either apologize now or in front of a judge," Dys said.
Prayer is not banned at public athletic events as long as a student or group of students is leading the activity. Supreme Court rulings have stated that school officials cannot be involved in promoting religion or establishing set times for prayers during events. The Supreme Court also specifically ruled on the issue of prayer and loudspeakers in a Texas school district, deeming the act unconstitutional.
Dys said "the prayer was the constitutionally protected private speech of CCS and thus cannot be censored or banned because of its religious viewpoint."
David Barkey, Southeastern area counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said prayer can be censored when it takes place at a publicly owned stadium like the Citrus Bowl and no apology is needed.
"It's not as if (the FHSAA) did not allow these student-athletes to pray at all," Barkey said. "They were able to do it on the field, in the locker room, anywhere except over the loudspeaker of a public venue where there may have been people of other beliefs. As the host of the event, (the FHSAA) was considered state actors and therefore made the right decision."
But that decision did not sit well with many before or after the game.
Cambridge junior placekicker Jacob Enns said the teams were in the locker room before the game when they got word there would be no announced prayer. He said it was confusing for players and coaches.
"It was an extremely frustrating situation," Enns said. "Prayer before our football games is something we've done our entire season. When we were told we couldn't pray, we were like 'Why?' The fact that they said we couldn't was not only disappointing but it sent a message to us that prayer was wrong."
Euler said his school decided to continue pursuing the issue in order to protect current and future students.
"Our purpose in this is to stand up for our faith," he said. "We want to show to our students that we will be bold for Jesus."