A Christian school in Tampa has signaled it will file a federal lawsuit against the Florida High School Athletics Association after the school’s headmaster was told he couldn’t say a public prayer before the football team’s state championship game in Orlando.
Administrators from the Cambridge Christian School, a K-12 institution at 6101 North Habana Ave., sent a demand letter to the FHSAA on Tuesday with help from the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm from Texas that specializes in religious liberty rights.
The letter asks for an apology for unlawfully censoring the school’s private speech, as well as formal recognition from the FHSAA that students in Florida schools have a right to pray in public. If the FHSAA doesn’t respond in 30 days, the school will take the issue to Tampa’s federal court.
“When we had been told initially that we weren’t allowed to pray we were in shock. Why would this even be a question?” said 10th-grade student and varsity football kicker Jacob Enns. “We just assumed it was our constitutional right or something normal we would be allowed to do, and we really learned that sometimes we might have a difficulty in doing what the Lord wants us to do but we need to stand up for what’s right to set an example for others.”
Dec. 4 was the first time Cambridge Christian School’s football team had played in a state championship game in its 51-year history. It was also the first time the school had been told it couldn’t pray before a game.
Cambridge’s Lancers and the University Christian School Knights of Jacksonville were denied their request to have a prayer said over the public announcement system before they faced off in the 2015 2A state championship game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando — a game hosted and sanctioned by the FHSAA.
Earlier that week, both schools’ headmasters requested the prayer verbally and then wrote an email to FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing requesting Cambridge Headmaster Tim Euler be allowed to start the game with a broadcast invocation.
“It is obvious that the occasion to pray and thank the Lord for his blessings over our school and student-athletes is one of utmost importance to us,” University Christian’s Headmaster, Heath Nivens, wrote in his letter to the FHSAA. “Our administrative team at UCS is in full support of having Mr. Euler pray before our competition over the loud speaker. Furthermore, I, too, agree that the fans from both schools and those in attendance would be in full understanding given the core values of both institutions.”
Dearing responded that federal law prevented the agency from granting the request because the teams were playing in a public center, paid for largely with public tax dollars and owned by the city of Orlando.
Florida law deems the FHSAA a “state actor” prohibited from sanctioning prayer, Dearing said.
The students were still allowed to recite a prayer on the football field.
“After consulting the association attorney, and his review of 18 pages of case summaries, I’m afraid I am not able to comply with your wish,” Dearing wrote. “I totally understand the desire, and why your request is made. However, for me to grant the wish could subject this Association to tremendous legal entanglements.”
Requests for comment from the FHSAA were not immediately returned Tuesday.
The school says more legal entanglements will stem from the FHSAA’s refusal.
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