In Tampa Florida, the Florida High School Athletics Association seems to have established itself as the arbiter of free speech when it comes to public prayer at games sanctioned by the high school sports organization.
The FHSAA officials who apparently have no problem with the religious connotations of a Hail Mary pass have informed administrators from the Cambridge Christian School in Tampa that the Christian school’s administrator may not say public prayer before the football team’s state championship game.
For their part, on Tuesday, administrators from Cambridge Christian School, a K-12 institution in Tampa, sent a letter of demand to the FHSAA asking for an apology for unlawfully censoring the school’s private speech. In addition, the school demands the sports organization give formal recognition that students in Florida schools have a right to pray in public. According to the Tampa Tribune, the FHSAA has 30 days to respond after which time the school will present the case before Tampa’s federal court.
The FHSAA demand against prayer is not the first sports versus Christianity controversy to erupt in Florida. Famed University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, a devout Christian, would often kneel on a knee as though in prayer during games. While at UF his superstar status contained occasional complaints about his open religiosity. However, his short tenure at NFL’s Denver Broncos, whom he led to the playoffs, exploded into a national controversy covered by every newspaper and television network station in America. Eventually, Tebow left pro- football before his 26th birthday, unable to secure a position with another team after being cut.
Prayer has been under attack from education administrators, sports authorities and in classrooms in other states too and the FHSAA censoring of prayer by a private religious school is not likely to be resolved in a local court. Some say the case could wind up in the Supreme Court, particularly since the school is by its very foundation and accredited religious school. The case will likely attract national attention school sports officials seek the authority to define free speech as it applies to religious campuses across the country.
The scrimmage actually began on December 4, 2015 when 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. It was the first and only time Cambridge Christian School’s football team made it to a state championship game in 51 years. That game was also hosted and sanctioned by the FHSAA. This time, school officials may throw their own Hail Mary in federal court. The controversial case will likely be immediately appealed regardless of outcome.
“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. Tim 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.”
Outside of the FHSAA demands against prayer, there seems to be little opposition to prayers at the game since both schools’ headmasters planned to speak the prayer verbally and both schools wrote an email to FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing requesting Cambridge Headmaster Euler be allowed to start the game with a broadcast invocation.