Earlier in 2018, we witnessed the passing of an American icon, the Rev. Billy Graham, whose fame, beyond his years of faithful preaching, stems largely from the crusades that bore his name and that he presented around the world.
Most Americans have some memory of Graham standing on the dais erected over the end zone of a packed sports stadium, preaching the Gospel message of Jesus Christ over the stadium’s speakers, prompting millions of people to “come forward.”
Orlando’s Camping World Stadium is just such a stadium. When it opened as the Tangerine Bowl in 1969, Graham’s crusade christened it. He would return in 1983 when the City of Orlando — the owners of the stadium then, as now — renamed it the Citrus Bowl.
It was also the venue for a 2015 state football championship game between two private Christian high schools. The schools, Tampa’s Cambridge Christian School and Jacksonville’s University Christian School, hold a lengthy tradition of opening their games with a prayer over the loudspeaker.
It’s more than a tradition; it’s the means by which players on the field and their families in the bleachers commune together with the Almighty prior to kickoff. So they asked the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) to continue that tradition before the championship game began.
But the FHSAA said no. Actually, it was more than a blunt “no.” In a lengthy email, the FHSAA predicated its decision on the religious viewpoint to be expressed over the city-owned, state-controlled stadium speakers.
The FHSAA feared that allowing a 30-second prayer over the loudspeaker — the same loudspeaker that once carried the baritone voice of the late Rev. Billy Graham — would violate the U.S. Constitution.
Actually, it couldn’t. The speech would’ve been private speech, subject to the stringent protections of the First Amendment. Just because it would take place on government property doesn’t convert the protected private speech into the speech of the state. If there was any concern about that, the state could have simply offered a simple disclaimer.
But the FHSAA simply would not bend. So, last week, our lawsuit on behalf of Cambridge Christian School against the FHSAA traveled to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. There, we argued that the FHSAA had engaged in viewpoint discrimination, violating the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and the rights of the school.
As we argued, the FHSAA could simply have said, “No.” But it didn’t.
It said, to paraphrase, “No, because your speech would be religious speech on state property.”
Because it specifically targeted the religious viewpoint to be expressed by the schools, we argue the FHSAA has, in fact, violated the religious freedom of both schools.
The outcome of this lawsuit is vitally important. If a state actor, such as the FHSAA, can discriminate against religious schools and prevent them from praying for 30 seconds over a city-owned loudspeaker, can it then pick and choose other speech that it will not permit? What happens when the next Billy Graham wants to use the same public address system in the same stadium?
“What happens when the next Billy Graham wants to use the same public address system in the same stadium?”
Billy Graham and Cambridge Christian School share more in common than Camping World Stadium. They both got their start in Tampa. Graham started his preaching tenure by preaching at the local gospel missions, inside the city stockade, and on Tampa’s “skid row.”
Thankfully, the State of Florida didn’t end Graham’s career by denying his right to express his religious viewpoints within some of the most famous, publicly owned venues in the nation.
Should the 11th Circuit approve of the FHSAA’s discrimination against the religious viewpoint of two Christian schools, one wonders what other activity in public, religious or otherwise, the state might censor.
The founders of our nation made it clear that the sole purpose of government is to protect the God-given rights of the people. The authority to do so is entrusted to the government through the consent of the governed.
As the 11th Circuit said in the 2000 case of Chandler v. Siegelman, the First Amendment “does not require the elimination of private speech endorsing religion in public places,” nor does it “permit the state to confine religious speech to whispers or banish it to broom closets.”
Indeed. We hope the 11th Circuit continues that stance and prevents any further hostility toward the religious beliefs of Floridians. Otherwise, freedom itself doesn’t have a prayer.
Jeremy Dys is deputy general counsel for First Liberty Institute , a Plano, Texas-based nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans.