Tampa Christian school asked not to pray before championship files legal action

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A controversy over a pregame prayer at a Florida high school football championship game could end up in court after a Tampa school threatened a lawsuit Tuesday.

The Florida High School Athletic Association denied a request by Cambridge Christian School to use the loudspeaker to pray before the Class 2A championship game in December.

"Religious liberty is not something that the government just gives to us, it's something that God has given to us and the government is bound, duty-bound, by the First Amendment to respect it," said Jeremy Dys, an attorney representing the school on behalf of Liberty Institute.

The game between Cambridge and University Christian out of Jacksonville, which won 61-16, was played at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

In the response to Headmaster Tim Euler's email days before the contest, an FHSAA representative told Euler "the federal law addresses two pertinent issues that prevent us from granting your request."

FHSAA wrote that Citrus Bowl facility is public and, secondly, "the FHSAA (host and coordinator of the event) is legally a 'State Actor,' [and] cannot legally permit or grant permission for such an activity."

"What is the Florida High School Athletic Association teaching our student athletes in this state?" Dys said. "They're telling the entire state that it's wrong to pray. Well I've got a message for each one of the students across this country, every student athlete in Florida: it's not wrong to pray in public."

Dys said the school is demanding an apology by Jan. 25 from the FHSAA and assurances that this won't happen again, otherwise a lawsuit might be coming.

Euler said this whole situation is disappointing.

"Frankly, it was frustrating, it hurt, we were upset about it, but we firmly believe that this is something that can be resolved," he said.

The use of the loudspeaker to conduct a pregame prayer is a tradition at Cambridge Christian dating back to the 1960's.

The two teams were able pray together before the game, but without the use of the loudspeaker.

An FHSAA spokesperson responded to the controversy with a statement that read:

"In regard to the recent issue involving two high school football teams and their request for prayer over the public address system at the Citrus Bowl, the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) acted in accordance with a prior U.S. Supreme Court decision and Florida Statutes. The FHSAA, as host and coordinator of the event, is statutorily a "State Actor", and according to state and federal law, cannot legally permit or grant permission for the requested activity.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court informed a Texas high school that it cannot allow its football team members to lead a prayer on the field before the start of the game, where the school allowed the team to use the stadium's PA system to broadcast the prayer to the spectators. While no school employee was involved in the actual prayer, the Court said the school gave the impression that it was endorsing the prayer by allowing the use of its PA system and tolerating the prayer as part of the pre-game ceremonies. Due to the fact that the two situations are related, the FHSAA is obligated to uphold and obey the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The FHSAA has always accommodated pre-and post-game on-field prayer opportunities. Likewise, the FHSAA has never prohibited teams from praying on the field or court, before or after a competition. In this case, both teams conducted prayers before and after the championship game."