TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – It’s been a tradition at Cambridge Christian School since the 1960. The football team prays before every game.
“It’s second nature to us. We take every opportunity to pray,” school headmaster Tim Eueler told News Channel 8. “It’s just what we do.”
So when the team made it all the way to the 2015 2A State Championship Football Game in December there was no question about what the pre-game ritual would be at the Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando.
Cambridge faced Jacksonville’s University Christian School. Both teams thought they would pray as they always had. They decided to broadcast the prayer over the loudspeaker.
Or, so they thought. “I just assumed, two Christian schools want to pray, there shouldn’t be a problem with this,” Eueler told News Channel 8.
But there was a problem, the Cambridge Christian headmaster explained – a big one.
The football teams were given strict rules by the Florida High School Athletic Association that they could not broadcast their prayer over the loudspeaker.
WESH Orlando reported in December that a Florida High School Athletic Association representative said the prayer would have presented a legal concern. The association said it was an issue to allow the prayer over the loud speakers at a public facility supported by tax money.
“Based on previous court precedent, legally we cannot, we do not have the authority to allow that type of request,” Corey Sobers with the FHSAA told WESH. The association pointed to a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The athletic association always accommodates prayer on the field before and after games, a spokesman said. The agency provided photos of both Cambridge and University Christian praying at midfield. “The FHSAA presented alternative options for team prayers, including on-field prayer, in lieu of the publicly lead prayer, as requested, over the PA system,” a spokesman explained.
“We’ve seen correspondence from the University Christian coach and the FHSAA, in which he stated that while he was disappointed with the decision, he understood the difficult position the FHSAA found themselves in and praised the FHSAA for the way they handled the championships as a whole,” the spokesman added.
The Liberty Institute doesn’t agree.
“That’s a violation of the law,” said Jermey Dys, who is representing Cambridge Christian. Dys is Senior Counsel for the Liberty Institute, a non-profit legal group. The non-profit focuses on instances when it believes religious liberty has been violated.
“It’s wrong for the government to censor the private speech of private individuals, including when someone wants to pray in public,” Dys said.
Cambridge Christian is now asking for an apology from the FHSAA, which Dys claims violated the constitutional rights of students.
“(The FHSAA) is on the wrong side of the law,’ he said.
Dys and his legal team have given the association 30 days to respond. If not, the school is prepared to take the matter to federal court.
“If the government can censor your speech at the state football championship, what speech is going to be safe? So, they can apologize now or to a judge,” Dys maintains.
The FHSAA has not yet returned phone calls to News Channel 8.
Tampa’s Cambridge lost the game 61-16.