TALLAHASSEE — The Florida High School Athletic Association is asking a federal judge to toss out a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a decision that prevented two Christian schools from using a loudspeaker for a prayer before a football championship game.
The association said it did not violate the rights of Tampa's Cambridge Christian School, which filed the lawsuit last month. In a motion to dismiss the case, the association argued that Cambridge Christian and University Christian School of Jacksonville were free to pray before a December 2015 championship game -— just not over the public-address system.
"Indeed, as the amended complaint (the Cambridge Christian lawsuit) makes clear, FHSAA has not denied the school's athletic program the ability to express itself through prayer among themselves prior, during, or following the game, either in the locker room or outside on the athletic field," said the motion, filed Tuesday in federal court in Tampa. "FHSAA also has not banned the school's athletes and supporters from saying anything they wish to anyone they speak with, or from displaying any signage they wish to bring with them. But the law does not require — and for good and valid reason does not permit — the FHSAA to promote sectarian prayer through state-run public address systems."
Cambridge Christian alleges that the association, the longtime governing body for high-school sports in Florida, violated the U.S. Constitution and the state Constitution in denying a request to use the public-address system at Orlando's Camping World Stadium for a pre-game prayer.
The lawsuit also seeks a preliminary injunction against the association continuing the policy for upcoming athletic events.
"By rejecting Cambridge Christian's request for pre-game prayer over the loudspeaker on the basis of its religious character and viewpoint, the FHSAA unlawfully prohibited Cambridge Christian's private religious speech and unreasonably burdened its right to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion," the lawsuit said.
The case stems from the Division 2A football championship game on Dec. 4 between Cambridge Christian and University Christian. Three days before the game, the schools asked the association to be allowed to use the loudspeaker to lead a prayer, but the request was denied.
The teams prayed together at mid-field before the game, according to court documents filed by Cambridge Christian and the association. In the motion to dismiss filed this week, the association said it uses a public-address "protocol" that includes policies about what announcers can say during games.
As examples, that includes announcements about lineups, substitutions and timeouts and includes a script for promotional announcements, the motion said.
The association said it does not allow "open access" to the public-address system. The association's legal arguments are based, at least in part, on what is known as the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.
"FHSAA was also upholding its obligations under the First Amendment's Establishment Clause in not allowing what would amount to a state-sponsored prayer at a state-sponsored championship football game," the motion said. "Cambridge Christian was not denied the opportunity for prayer — in fact, Cambridge Christian acknowledges that it was allowed to offer a pre-game prayer, which it did so, publicly, from mid-field. FHSAA did not infringe on Cambridge Christian's right to exercise its religious freedom and free speech rights."
But the school's lawsuit pointed to other forms of speech allowed at the game, including messages from corporate sponsors on the stadium's video screen and advertisements delivered by the public-address announcer. It also said Cambridge Christian's cheerleading coach was allowed to play music over the loudspeaker while the school's cheerleaders performed at halftime.
"The policy is not neutral; and, the policy is not generally applicable because it prohibits religious speech, and only religious speech, from being broadcast over the loudspeaker," the lawsuit said. "The FHSAA's denial of Cambridge Christian's request for prayer over the loudspeaker, while allowing for secular messages to be delivered over the loudspeaker and other stadium communications media, constitutes content-based and viewpoint-based discrimination in contravention of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."