Federal Court Sides with FHSAA in Case Involving Prayer and Football Games

Sep 1, 2017

A district judge from the Middle District of Florida has adopted the findings of a magistrate judge and dismissed the amended complaint and motion for a preliminary injunction sought by a Christian school in the state, which sought to preserve its ability to communicate religious speech over a loudspeaker during games sponsored by the Florida High School Athletic Association, Inc. (FHSAA).
Setting the stage for the legal arguments, the court noted the Cambridge Christian student-athletes, their parents, and fans are led in prayer by a parent or student or member of the school faculty or administration before every Cambridge Christian sporting event, which is a tradition.
During the 2015 football season, Cambridge Christian’s football team succeeded in qualifying as a finalist for the FHSAA 2A division playoffs, competing against University Christian School, which has a similar mission and tradition of prayer to that of Cambridge Christian’s.
Prior to the championship game, Cambridge Christian participated in a conference call with the FHSAA and, together with University Christian School, requested to use the stadium’s loudspeaker “to lead their attending students, families, and fans in a joint pre-game prayer.” The FHSAA denied the request.
Following the conference call, Cambridge Christian’s Head of School, Tim Euler, e-mailed the executive director of the FHSAA, Roger Dearing, requesting that Cambridge Christian be allowed to “honor their Lord before the game and pray” over the stadium’s loudspeaker. After consulting with the FHSAA’s legal counsel, Dr. Dearing responded by informing the school that he could not permit the schools to use the loudspeaker to pray.
His reasoning included that: (1) because the Stadium is a public facility, it was “off limits”; and (2) the FHSAA is a state actor that could not “legally permit or grant permission for” prayer over the loudspeaker.
Based on the FHSAA’s denial of its request to use the loudspeaker for prayer, and believing that the FHSAA’s policy will affect it in the future, Cambridge Christian filed a seven-count complaint. “In Count I, Cambridge Christian alleged that the FHSAA’s conduct constituted impermissible content-based and viewpoint-based discrimination, denying its right to freedom of speech and placing a substantial burden on its sincerely held religious beliefs in contravention of the First Amendment. In Count II, Cambridge Christian sought declaratory relief regarding whether the FHSAA’s policy prohibiting religious speech over the loudspeaker violated Cambridge Christian’s rights to freedom of religious exercise and freedom of speech. Count III also sought declaratory relief as to whether the Establishment Clause requires the FHSAA to prohibit prayer over the loudspeaker. Counts IV through VI mirrored the previous counts, except that they were raised under the Florida Constitution’s Establishment Clause and guarantees of freedom of religion and speech. Finally, Count VII alleged a violation of section 761.03, Florida Statutes, which is Florida’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because the FHSAA’s conduct intentionally placed a substantial burden on Cambridge Christian’s sincerely held religious beliefs in the absence of any legitimate government interest and in a manner that was not narrowly tailored to the least restrictive means of furthering such interest.”
Cambridge Christian also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the FHSAA from enforcing its policy of prohibiting religious speech over a loudspeaker during FHSAA-sponsored games. The FHSAA moved to dismiss the verified amended complaint with prejudice pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), alleging that Cambridge Christian could not state any claim for relief. The FHSAA also opposed Cambridge Christian’s application for a preliminary injunction.
After considering the arguments, the court examined the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibit Congress from making any “law respecting an establishment of religion,” or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” respectively, as well as prohibits Congress from making any law “abridging the freedom of speech.”
Freedom of Speech
Regarding the Free Exercise Clause and freedom of speech, Cambridge Christian asked the court to “accept its legal conclusion that exclusion of prayer from the stadium loudspeaker by the FHSAA was impermissible viewpoint discrimination because religion is a viewpoint.” Specifically, it claimed that the messages “submitted by the FHSAA’s sponsors were commercial speech, and that exclusion of its prayer—non-commercial speech—was viewpoint discrimination.” The magistrate judge found, and the district judge concurred, that the messages about the FHSAA sponsors “were government speech. Regardless, exclusion of non-commercial speech where commercial speech is permitted is a content-based restriction, not a viewpoint-based restriction. KH Outdoor, LLC v. City of Trussville, 458 F.3d 1261, 1271 (11th Cir. 2006) (stating that a policy that favored commercial speech over noncommercial speech was a content-based restriction). Accordingly, Cambridge Christian has failed to plead that the FHSAA engaged in impermissible viewpoint discrimination in violation of its rights under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.” This finding eliminated four of the claims.
Free Exercise Clause
Turning to the Free Exercise Clause claim, the court noted that a plaintiff must allege that he or she has a sincere religious belief, and that “the law at issue in some way impacts the plaintiff’s ability to either hold that belief or act pursuant to that belief.” GeorgiaCarry.Org, Inc. v. Ga., 687 F.3d 1244, 1256-57 (11th Cir. 2012).
“In other words,” wrote the court, “the plaintiff must allege that the government impermissibly burdened a sincerely held religious belief.” Id. (citing Watts v. Fla. Int’l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1294 (11th Cir. 2007)).
The court noted that the complaint “is devoid of any allegations that the FHSAA impacted Cambridge Christian’s ability to hold or act pursuant to its sincerely held religious beliefs. Instead, the complaint alleges that Cambridge Christian and University Christian School were permitted to pray at the most central location of the Stadium. Accordingly, the FHSAA did not banish Cambridge Christian’s religious speech to broom closets, but freely permitted it to engage in its privately-initiated prayer without restriction.”
The Establishment Clause
The court noted that under the Establishment Clause, the “government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which ‘establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.'” Santa Fe, 530 U.S. at 302 (quoting Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 587, 112 S. Ct. 2649, 120 L. Ed. 2d 467 (1992). The Establishment Clause “prohibits a school district from taking affirmative steps to create a vehicle for prayer to be delivered at a school function.” Chandler II, 230 F.3d at 1315.
However, the district judge agreed with the Magistrate Judge that Cambridge Christian’s “allegations as to the Establishment Clause were more appropriately addressed in the context of its claims under the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. … Accordingly, Cambridge Christian fails to state a claim entitling it to declaratory relief based on the Establishment Clause.”
As for the motion for a preliminary injunction, the court noted that “the most important factor in the analysis of whether a preliminary injunction should be granted is the first—whether the moving party establishes a likelihood of success on the merits. Schiavo ex rel. Schindler v. Schiavo, 403 F.3d 1223, 1232 (11th Cir. 2005)
“… Here, Cambridge Christian is not likely to succeed on the merits because the allegations of the verified amended complaint fail to state a claim. Instead, based on the allegations, this court concludes that the Establishment Clause was not implicated, and the FHSAA was not required by the Free Speech Clause, Free Exercise Clause, or Act to open the stadium’s loudspeaker to Cambridge Christian to allow it to broadcast prayer prior to the championship game.
“Cambridge Christian likewise has not established that it will be irreparably injured if the preliminary injunction is not issued.”
Finally, the court wrote that it “cannot determine that the injunction would not be averse to the public interest. FHSAA championship games are government organized and run events for school students. While the Free Exercise Clause guarantees people the right to freely exercise their religion, others may not be coerced into participating in religious practices. Santa Fe, 530 U.S. 290 at 310-11, 120 S. Ct. 2266, 147 L. Ed. 2d 295. As the Supreme Court recognized in Santa Fe, ‘in a school context,’ a request that a believer may find to be reasonable ‘may appear to the nonbeliever or dissenter to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the State’ to enforce a religious orthodoxy.” Accordingly, Cambridge Christian has not met its burden of persuasion as to the public interest factor.
Cambridge Christian School, INC. v. Florida High School Athletic Association, INC.; M.D. Fla.; Case No: 8:16-cv-2753-T-36AAS, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87298; 6/7/17
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Adam Michael Foslid, Eliot Pedrosa, Stephanie Peral, Lead Attorneys, Greenberg Traurig, LLP, Miami; Hiram S. Sasser, Jeremiah G. Dys, Justin E. Butterfield, Lead Attorneys, PRO HAC VICE, First Liberty Institute, Plano, TX. (for defendant) Judith M. Mercier, Robin Michelle Nauman, Lead Attorneys, Holland & Knight, LLP – Orlando, Orlando, FL; Leonard E. Ireland, Jr., Clayton-Johnston, PA, Gainesville, FL.


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