Florida's Department of Education is backing a pair of Christian high schools that were barred from conducting a loudspeaker prayer at a game held in the stadium that hosts the annual Citrus Bowl, the Christian Post reported.
More from the outlet:
Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran sent a letter to the Florida High School Athletic Association last Friday, denouncing the decision to prohibit the prayer as "deeply troubling."
The letter, a copy of which was emailed to The Christian Post on Monday, called on the Association to review "its policies and procedures to ensure religious expression is permitted to the greatest extent possible under the law."
"Policies that are overbroad or restrictive may deny students their constitutional right to private religious expression," Corcoran wrote, according to the Christian Post. "Such policies must be immediately repealed and replaced with policies that are consistent with the religious freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution."
He added that he did "not understand why this request was denied," the outlet said, noting that Corcoran added that "the state must not censor private religious speech of its students, even [when] that speech is given at a state-sponsored event or on public property."
What's the background?
The outlet said the athletic association in December 2015 ordered Cambridge Christian and University Christian to not conduct a prayer over a loudspeaker at 2A state championship game at the stadium. The Orlando venue also is known by its official moniker, Camping World Stadium.
Roger Dearing, head of the athletic association at the time, told the Christian high schools that the Citrus Bowl "is a public facility, predominantly paid for with public tax dollars" and was "'off limits' under federal guidelines and precedent court cases," the Christian Post said.
With that, Cambridge Christian sued the athletic association in September 2016 with the legal assistance of the First Liberty Institute, the outlet noted.
In 2017, a magistrate court sided with the athletic association, with District Court Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell concluding that "the entirety of the speech over the stadium loudspeaker was government speech and that, even if it were not, the stadium loudspeaker is a non-public forum. Therefore, the FHSAA was permitted to deny Cambridge Christian's request to use it to broadcast prayer during a school sporting event organized and governed by a state entity," the Christian Post said.
But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in November issued a unanimous decision partly reversing the district court ruling, the outlet reported.
Judge Stanley Marcus authored the court's opinion, concluding that the lower court had been "too quick to dismiss all of Cambridge Christian's claims out of hand. Taking the complaint in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, as we must at this stage in the proceedings, the schools' claims for relief under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses have been adequately and plausibly pled," the Christian Post reported.
He continued, "And while we agree with the district court that the loudspeaker was a nonpublic forum, we conclude that Cambridge Christian has plausibly alleged that it was arbitrarily and haphazardly denied access to the forum in violation of the First Amendment."