Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Tradition is paramount in sports. Clemson football players rub Howard’s Rock for good luck before running onto the field. West Virginia University players rub a giant block of coal before the game. Notre Dame players famously slap the “Play like a champion today” sign on the way to the field.

What Cambridge Christian School, a small, 2A Christian school in Tampa, Florida, does before kickoff is more than a tradition; it’s central to who they are as a school. Since the school opened in the 1960s, every athletic contest has started with prayer over the loudspeaker.

That is, until the school earned the right to play in their first state championship football game in 2015.

The competition was slated for Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, where the Lancers would face off against another Christian school, University Christian School, with a similar pre-game tradition.

Prayer before football games is central to their missions. It is meant to unite the players on the field with each other and their fans in the stands, while thanking God for the privilege of playing the game.

No one would seriously think that the teams for these two private, Christian schools praying over the loudspeaker of the Citrus Bowl would violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on the “establishment of religion.” No one, that is, except the Florida High School Athletic Association.

When the teams asked the FHSAA to use the loudspeaker to offer the pre-game prayer in the cavernous stadium, the FHSAA forbade the schools from praying. The association argued that somehow the prayer could be viewed as an establishment of religion by the State of Florida since the state athletic association regulated the game played on city-owned property.

Some have argued that if private religious schools want public prayer before their football games, they should leave the FHSAA and form their own private statewide Christian athletic association. If that sounds familiar, it might be because the same people once suggested that if students want to pray in school, they should leave America’s public schools and attend a religious school.

They did — and now some are calling for religious athletes to leave their league and form their own association. Where will it end?

Students should not have to form their own league to exercise the rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution. The Supreme Court of the United States has made it clear that students do not lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, or in this case the football stadium gate. The FHSAA is not supposed to take sides in any of their member school’s athletic contests. The First Amendment requires that same level of neutrality when it comes to religious speech. Here, the FHSAA chose to be on the side that is hostile to public displays of religion.

At the 2015 championship game between Cambridge Christian School and University Christian School, the bleachers were filled with the players’ families, friends, and fans.

Let us hope the courts stop the FHSAA’s hostility toward religion from becoming a new tradition in high school sports.

Jeremy Dys is Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty Institute, a national law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom. First Liberty represents Cambridge Christian School. Its case is pending with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Cambridge.

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