Tampa football team sues to pray, but media still don’t score a touchdown

This may be high school sports week on GR. At midday, my colleague Bobby Ross Jr. looked at a boys soccer team in Arizona that didn't want to let a girl onto the team. My focus today is on a high school football team in Tampa that has been told not to pray over stadium louspeakers.

Cambridge Christian School this week made good on its threat to sue for the right to lead public prayer before a game. In December, the Florida High School Athletic Association denied the Cambridge Lancers the mic and speakers at Orlando's Citrus Bowl, even though they were facing another Christian school -- University Christian of Jacksonville. Mainstream media coverage varied greatly, as I wrote in a January GR post.

Unfortunately, they did little better this time around.

The fracas turns on whether the FHSAA, as a "state actor" -- commissioned by the state legislature to regulate high school sports -- is responsible for speech flowing through public-address systems at stadiums like the Citrus Bowl (renamed Camping World Stadium). If so, they argue, they can't allow religious talk like prayer.

Cambridge Christian, as you can guess, is standing on the First Amendment rights of free speech and exercise of religion.  They argue also that the athletic association is doing the opposite of the First Amendment by opposing religious free speech.

In January, the Tampa Tribune did much better than the Tampa Bay Times. Now that the Times has bought the Trib, their better side seems to have taken over -- at least with this story:

First Liberty filed the lawsuit along with lawyers from the firm of Greenberg Traurig. On Tuesday, attorneys held a news conference with Tim Euler, head of school for Cambridge Christian.
"I believe in our Constitution," Euler said. "I believe in our government. I believe that in time of need, we pray. And to say a prayer of thanksgiving prior to an athletic event should not be any different than Congress opening up their meetings in prayer."
Prayer is not banned at public athletic events, as long as the activity is student led. Supreme Court rulings have stated that school officials cannot be involved in promoting religion or establishing set times for prayers during events.

Another virtue: Directly quoting attorney Jeremy Dys of the First Liberty Institute. These days, media often settle for a statement or email.

"The only reason the FHSAA said no is because it was religious speech," Dys says. "The lesson that the FHSAA is teaching every student athlete is somehow that prayer is wrong."

A better policy, Dys tells the Times, is a "content neutral" policy for future events, neither restricting nor encouraging religious speech.

But the Times doesn't bring up a fact from a previous article: that the Supreme Court has ruled that it's unconstitutional for prayers to be recited through loudspeakers in a Texas school district.

With all that, the paper's coverage is better than that of Florida TV stations. Except for WFLA, the NBC affiliate in Tampa:

Both teams thought they would pray, just as they always had. In fact, they wanted to broadcast the prayer over the loudspeaker.
But, a penalty was called before the teams ever took the field.
The Florida High School Athletic Association said the teams could not broadcast their prayer over the loudspeaker. According to FHSAA, the prayer would have presented a legal concern, citing the use of 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 an Orlando television station. The association pointed to a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Then the station gets Dys' answers, including: “If the government can censor your speech at the state football championship, what speech is going to be safe?” And to its credit -- and that of the Times -- neither uses the shopworn adjective "the conservative First Liberty Institute."

Unfortunately, the further out you go, the more the stories degrade.  WTSP in Sarasota, 60 miles from Tampa, produced a report half as long, even though the case involves constitutional issues.

The station mainly writes the bare facts, then cuts to Cambridge quotes. “You cannot banish religious speech to the broom closets,” Jeremy Dys says. And Tim Euler adds, “I take offense to that as a citizen of the United States as well as head of the Cambridge Christian School and as a dad."

News4 in Jacksonville ran a piece by the News Service of Florida, which tried to report the case from the state capital of Tallahassee. As you might expect, the network relies on written texts: the lawsuit document and a statement by Euler. Also an email by Roger Dearing, the executive director of the FHSAA -- written in December:

"The issue was never whether prayer could be conducted," Dearing wrote. "The issue was, and is, that an organization, which is determined to be a 'state actor,' cannot endorse nor promote religion. The issue of prayer, in and of itself, was not denied to either team or anyone in the stadium."

Not that anyone else got much more from the association. FHSAA issued a statement saying they couldn't comment until they'd read a copy of the suit. I realize they want to make sure what they're talking about; but if you hide, you look like you have something to hide.

The Tampa Bay Times quotes him from December, saying the association is a " 'state actor' operating in a public facility." So both outlets went the second mile.

So the coverage has several strengths, but it also leaves several holes.

OK, so Dearing and his lawyers wouldn't talk. How about some professor of constitutional law? Maybe one of the 11 Constitution specialists at the University of Florida college of law? Or perhaps Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan at the University of South Florida, right there at the St. Pete campus?

Nor do any of the articles clear up any of the questions I asked in January:

* If prayer over a microphone is banned because it's a publicly funded stadium, what about the prayers on the publicly funded field and in the publicly funded locker rooms?

* Conversely, the Lancers have the right to pray, but does that mean the City of Orlando is obligated to amplify the prayers over its mike and loudspeakers?

* And the Golden Rule question: How would Cambridge Christian regard amplified prayers of a competing team to, say, Allah or Ganesha or the Triple Goddess of Wicca? Would they want people in the stands to participate?

Reporting basic facts is, of course, basic. Without that, you have no understanding. But to help people understand, you need to answer the questions you raised -- and, sometimes, the ones that sources may not want to bring up.

Photo: Thumbnail photo: Lancers logo of Cambridge Christian School.


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