TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida High School Athletic Association continues to move forward in a legal battle about whether Christian schools should have been allowed to offer a pregame prayer before a 2015 championship football game, as Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran pressures the association to reconsider its policies.
Corcoran this month sent a letter to association Executive Director George Tomyn calling on the high-school athletics governing body to “conduct an immediate review of its policies and procedures to ensure religious expression is permitted to the greatest extent possible under the law.”
Tomyn replied last week with a one-page letter to Corcoran that noted a federal appeals court recently sent the lawsuit back to a district judge, who had initially backed the association’s decision to deny permission to use a stadium loudspeaker for a pregame prayer.
“Based on the advice of counsel, the FHSAA will refrain from commenting on this ongoing litigation and allow this matter to be resolved in the forum in which it is now vested,” Tomyn said in the letter, obtained from the state Department of Education. “Rest assured the FHSAA has acted, and will continue to act, in a manner that is consistently in the best interest of our member schools.”
Corcoran responded Monday with a letter to Tomyn requesting a briefing on the lawsuit and reiterating his earlier calls for the association’s board of directors to review and amend policies.
“The very existence of this lawsuit suggests that the FHSAA needs a consistent method of resolving these issues,” Corcoran wrote in Monday’s letter. “It is in the best interest of the association’s member schools and student athletes to promote free speech and to protect religious expression by our students.”
Cambridge Christian School of Tampa filed the lawsuit in 2016 after being denied access to a loudspeaker to offer a prayer before a championship football game against Jacksonville’s University Christian School at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.
The association said allowing the schools to offer a prayer over the loudspeaker would have been viewed as “government speech.” U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell in 2017 agreed with the association and dismissed the case.
Honeywell wrote that Cambridge Christian’s position “amounts to a request that the FHSAA open its loudspeaker, which otherwise is not accessible to private parties, to allow for prayer to be broadcast during a government controlled and hosted event. This would likewise be perceived as state endorsement of Cambridge Christian's religious message.”
But a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month sent the case back to Honeywell, saying the issues deserve closer scrutiny.
“The lower court was too quick to pull the trigger insofar as it dismissed the appellants’ (Cambridge’s) free speech and free exercise (of religion) claims,” the 70-page appeals court decision said. “We cannot say whether these claims will ultimately succeed, but Cambridge Christian has plausibly alleged enough to enter the courtroom and be heard.”
Honeywell has scheduled a Dec. 30 conference call to discuss the status of the case.
In the letter Monday, Corcoran, an attorney, cited several court cases and state laws that he said should “serve as a model for FHSAA to develop a policy on student expression that will pass constitutional muster.”
“The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the state from establishing religion and protects and individual’s right to practice their religion without government intrusion,” Corcoran wrote. “While cases involving religion and free speech are complicated and fact specific, there are several fundamental principles that serve as guideposts.”