TALLAHASSEE — In a lengthy legal battle, a federal judge has dismissed arguments that the Florida High School Athletic Association improperly blocked Christian schools from offering a prayer over a stadium loudspeaker before a Florida championship football game. 2015 status.

U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell on Thursday issued a 38-page ruling that the association, the governing body for high school sports, is a ‘state actor’ and did not violate First Amendment rights. when she refused to allow a prayer on the audience. address system before a game between Cambridge Christian School in Tampa and University Christian School in Jacksonville.

Cambridge Christian filed a lawsuit, which Tampa-based Honeywell dismissed in 2017. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 overturned the dismissal and returned the case to Honeywell for further review. thorough.

Thursday’s ruling said the case ‘does not involve whether two Christian schools can pray together at a football game’, noting that the players and coaches met on the stadium pitch Orlando’s Camping World to pray before and after the game.

“The issue before the court is whether the First Amendment required the FHSAA (the association) to grant teams unrestricted access to the public address system to transmit the prayer over the loudspeaker during the pre-game,” wrote Honeywell. “Thus, the questions that need to be answered are whether the inability to pray over the loudspeaker during the pre-game of the football state championship final violated the First Amendment rights of CCS (Cambridge Christian ) to freedom of expression and the free exercise of religion. … (The) court finds that the First Amendment does not apply because the speech at issue is government speech, but even if part of the speech is considered private speech, the court finds no constitutional violation. took place.

Honeywell added that “the threshold question is whether the speech on the public address system is government speech or private speech. If the speech is a government speech, the First Amendment does not apply and the investigation goes no further. … (The) pre-game speech on the PA system at the state football championship final is a government speech.

Related: Federal judge to decide Cambridge Christian School pre-game prayer trial

At a hearing in December, Jesse Panuccio, an attorney representing Cambridge Christian, argued that the FHSAA had been “discriminating in point of view and arbitrary” in its decision to block the prayer.

Part of the school’s argument was that the FHSAA allowed a pre-game prayer over the loudspeaker during a 2012 state championship at the same stadium.

“There are two data points, twice schools asked to pray in the Class 2A Championship game. And in 50% of them, the FHSAA approved the application. It’s an arbitrary application,” Panuccio said.

But Honeywell said prayers ahead of the 2012 championship game or playoff games did not change its view that decisions about the use of the PA system at the 2015 game involved government speech. Commercials and other announcements on the system have been scripted.

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“With respect to the single occurrence of the prayer in the 2012 storyline, the court is not satisfied that the single incident creates a ‘history’ of private speech,” she wrote. “Although there is record evidence that the prayer took place in the pre-game of the 2012 Class 2A Football Championship Final, the isolated incident of the prayer in the context of a decade of scripts of football championship finals without any mention of prayer is an aberration that cannot be relied upon as proof of a history of private speech.Indeed, during oral argument, the FHSAA admitted that the 2012 prayer was mistakenly authorized . »

By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

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