FFRF files amicus brief over broadcast pregame prayers

FFRF has filed an amicus brief against a Florida Christian school that wants to broadcast pregame prayers at state championship football games.

Cambridge Christian School in Tampa, Fla., filed a federal lawsuit last month targeting the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA), a state entity, asking that it provide access to a public-address system so that the school’s prayers could be heard loud and clear before games. The case stemmed from a Dec. 4, 2015, game where the school’s request to use the public-address system for prayers was declined by the association, which manages game announcements. The association recently asked a Florida district court judge to toss out the lawsuit.

FFRF and its local chapter, Central Florida Freethought Community, have filed a friend-of-the-court brief asserting that Cambridge Christian has no case to make.

“Cambridge Christian wants to force a state agency to promote its Christian message through a mechanism limited to conveying government speech,” FFRF states in the brief. “The Florida High School Athletic Association has rightly declined to do so because it would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Students who participate in the association’s athletic championship competitions or attend the competitions cannot be the subjects of publicly broadcast prayer by the association, FFRF contends. This remains true even when private Christian schools participate. Under the Establishment Clause, the government may not endorse religion, and there is no exception to be made even if most members of the audience would be receptive to the religious message. The Florida High School Athletic Association cannot be the mouthpiece of religious organizations or be used to gather event attendees to engage in a communal expression of Christian religious worship.

FFRF also argues that a ruling in favor of Cambridge Christian would harm the public.
“In this case, an injunction would be adverse to the public interest because it would violate the rights of participants, spectators and those who view the game broadcast,” it says.

The Central Florida Freethought Community agrees. “We hope the court will see that this is not a matter of censorship, but the appropriate use of a public facility for a secular sporting event,” says Director Jocelyn Williamson.

FFRF ends school’s religious promotion

After an investigation prompted by FFRF’s objections, a Mississippi school district will no longer allow religious events to be promoted by administrators over the school public address system.

FFRF was informed by a concerned community member that administrators at Biloxi Junior High and Biloxi High had been broadcasting religious events. At Biloxi High School, there was a broadcast announcement reminding students to participate in a “See You at the Pole” event, which is an annual Christian-oriented prayer rally. Biloxi Junior High Principal Scott Powell reminded students over the loudspeakers on Oct. 4 and Oct. 5 not to forget to bring their bibles to school on Oct. 6 for “Bring Your Bible to School Day.” This was a privately organized, non-school religious event. There was no disclaimer made that the school was not endorsing the event.

On Oct. 26, FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to Biloxi Public Schools Superintendent Arthur McMillan about the constitutional violations.

“Public school representatives may not organize or endorse a prayer event like See You at the Pole or an event designed to promote a religious text like Bring Your Bible to School Day,” wrote Grover.

Grover informed McMillan that FFRF was requesting that the district investigate the violations and take action to ensure that its employees understand and respect their constitutional obligations.

On Nov. 18, FFRF received a response from Biloxi Schools Board Attorney Edward Donovan.

“Those responsible for the delivery for announcements at the junior high and high school have been directly counseled by the Superintendent to reinforce their awareness of the need to absolutely avoid announcements which promote any particular religious belief, prayer gatherings or any other activity which could be construed as the promotion of any sect or religion,” wrote Donovan.

Freedom From Religion Foundation