A flag on the pray: Florida media cover prayer controversy at public stadium

Football players pray all the time -- especially in a school like Cambridge Christian in Tampa -- but what if their headmaster wants to do it over the loudspeakers of a publicly-owned stadium?

Cambridge is "tackling" that issue, as Florida media put it, after being denied the right to pray at a championship game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando last December. Local media are hot on this story, yet they leave several questions unsettled.

The Tampa Tribune has produced one of the best stories thus far through its Tampa Bay Online, adding context and digging into legal issues. The lede gets right to it:

TAMPA -- A Christian school in Tampa has signaled it will file a federal lawsuit against the Florida High School Athletics Association after the school’s headmaster was told he couldn’t say a public prayer before a state championship football game.
Administrators from the Cambridge Christian School, a K-12 institution at 6101 North Habana Ave., sent a demand letter to the FHSAA Tuesday with help from the Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm from Texas that specializes in religious liberty rights.
The letter asks for an apology for unlawfully censoring the school’s private speech, as well as formal recognition from the FHSAA that students in Florida schools have a right to pray in public. If the FHSAA doesn’t respond in 30 days, the school will take the issue to Tampa’s federal court.

The newspaper explains that Florida law "deems the FHSAA a 'state actor' prohibited from sanctioning prayer." It says also that the Citrus Bowl is Orlando property and paid for largely with taxes. So I read a variety of sources, including executive director Roger Dearing of the FHSAA, headmaster Tim Euler of Cambridge, lawyer Jeremy Dys of the Liberty Institute, even a place kicker for Cambridge.

Dys' contribution is especially noteworthy. He says the association ruling would set a "dangerous precedent for government censorship of free speech." And the Tribune takes it further:

Reciting a prayer before the football game shouldn’t have been viewed any differently as when students nationwide pray around their school’s flagpoles for "See You At The Pole Day," or when the state Legislature begins its meetings with a prayer, Dys said.
The group’s letter to Dearing cites 17 court cases on similar issues of free speech, as well as other instances where the Supreme Court called the censoring of religious speech "an egregious form of content discrimination."

Interesting, but we don’t get Dearing's reply on that. Granted, the story is already 900 words. Maybe the Trib will run a follow-up.

Contrast all that with the shoddy, shallow story by the Tampa Bay Times on the same day. This is their idea of an intro:

TAMPA — Cambridge Christian had a banner football season in 2015. The Lancers went undefeated in the regular season for the first time and made the Class 2A state final. Only one thing tarnished the experience for the school, and its officials are demanding that the Florida High School Athletic Association make reparations for what they say was an impeding of the school's religious freedom.
Cambridge Christian head of school Tim Euler asked the FHSAA two days before the December state title game at Orlando's Citrus Bowl for permission to say a prayer over the loudspeaker before kickoff, says the Liberty Institute, a religious liberty advocacy and legal defense organization. It was something the Lancers had done all season before home games and during the playoffs, and fellow private school University Christian also was onboard with such a prayer.

Here we are, two fat paragraphs into the story, and we don’t even know what it's about. Only in the next paragraph do we learn that FHSAA said Euler couldn't pray over the loudspeaker. And not until the ninth paragraph does the Times get around to the lawsuit threat.

It does lay down a few ground rules, like this:

Prayer is not banned at public athletic events as long as a student or group of students is leading the activity. Supreme Court rulings have stated that school officials cannot be involved in promoting religion or establishing set times for prayers during events. The Supreme Court also specifically ruled on the issue of prayer and loudspeakers in a Texas school district, deeming the act unconstitutional.

However, the story doesn't have Dys reply directly. It only has him saying prayer is "constitutionally protected private speech," and that banning it amounts to censorship based on religious viewpoint. It doesn't ask, "What about that Texas case, Mr. Dys?"

WFLA follows suit, although it used to share an ace religion reporter -- Michelle Bearden -- with the Tribune (before she was laid off). It gets to the sixth paragraph before telling us that Euler wasn't allowed to broadcast his prayer. And it takes longer than that to relay the newest development, the looming lawsuit.

The main virtue here is a concise quote by Dys: "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."

To the south, WTSP in Sarasota opens its story much more crisply:

A local Christian school is on the defense tackling players' rights to pray over the loudspeaker at games.
Tampa's Cambridge Christian School took on Jacksonville’s University Christian in the state football championship in December.  The Florida High School Athletic Association shot down their request to share a pregame prayer over the public address system.
The school is now demanding changes and an apology from the state.

WTSP even links to a copy of Dys' six-page letter protesting "FHSAA’s Unlawful Viewpoint Discrimination." But it doesn't quote the letter, as it does the athletic association:

"In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court informed a Texas high school that it cannot allow its football team members to lead a prayer on the field before the start of the game, where the school allowed the team to use the stadium’s PA system to broadcast the prayer to the spectators. While no school employee was involved in the actual prayer, the Court said the school gave the impression that it was endorsing the prayer by allowing the use of its PA system and tolerating the prayer as part of the pre-game ceremonies. Due to the fact that the two situations are related, the FHSAA is obligated to uphold and obey the U.S. Supreme Court decision."

Again, how does Dys answer that? We don't know. The next voice is the mother of a cheerleader. And what no one discusses is why one kind of prayer is OK, but another is not. 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? Perhaps Dys is right -- that the FHSAA's prohibition is the camel's nose under the tent?

On the other hand, Euler may have the right to pray as a matter of private free speech, but does that mean the City of Orlando is obligated to amplify his prayer over its mike and loudspeakers?

And there's that Golden Rule question: How would the Christian students react if the head of, say, a predominantly Muslim school wanted to invoke Allah's blessings on a game? Such schools may not be common now, but ...

At least the Tribune adds a dash of humor. It notes that University Christian won the championship by a lopsided 61-16; then it quotes Cambridge's coach: "As good as that team was, it would have taken a lot of prayer that day."

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