Geez, the months-long fracas with Cambridge Christian School lends new meaning to the term "political football."
And like a hotly contested game, much of the coverage has moved the ball up and down the field, without a goal.
At least an NPR outlet in Florida has spelled out the basic constitutional conflict that could affect freedoms for the rest of us. With a few glaring omissions, which we'll get into later.
The immediate issue is prayer. As a Christian school, the Tampa-based Cambridge does a lot of it. So does its football team, the Lancers, including over stadium sound systems.
That practice brought them toe to toe after regional playoffs in December. Just before the championship game at Camping World Stadium in Orlando (aka the Citrus Bowl), the Lancers wanted their amplified prayer time. The Florida High School Athletic Association said no. Now the matter is in court.
What's new in the NPR story is clarity: having an outside expert explain the clashing values in the nation's founding document:
Catherine Cameron, a professor at Stetson University says both sides have merit.
"You know obviously the First Amendment, the way it’s structured, it’s pretty clear that the government can't have a law that would restrict somebody from expressing their free speech," said Cameron.
But, she says, there is a flip side to that.
"If they have a law that essentially allows someone in their free expression of religion to somehow force that expression on to someone else, then there's an argument that the government is actually aiding in forcing another person to be part of their religious expression and religious experience," she said.
Ahhhh. Something we can understand. Better than when the Tampa Bay Times, for instance, largely repeated the legal positions from each side.
The Times quoted Roger Dearing, FHSAA executive director, that the association is a "state actor" and couldn't approve public prayer because of the First Amendment. It then quoted Jeremy Dys of the First Liberty Institute, arguing back that FHSAA was assuming religious free speech is less important than other speech.
Even that was better than the News Service of Florida, which reported FHSAA's request for a judge to dismiss the Cambridge Christian lawsuit. Try to stay awake while reading this:
"FHSAA was also upholding its obligations under the First Amendment's Establishment Clause in not allowing what would amount to a state-sponsored prayer at a state-sponsored championship football game," the motion said. "Cambridge Christian was not denied the opportunity for prayer -- in fact, Cambridge Christian acknowledges that it was allowed to offer a pre-game prayer, which it did so, publicly, from mid-field. FHSAA did not infringe on Cambridge Christian's right to exercise its religious freedom and free speech rights."
And the rejoinder:
"The policy is not neutral; and, the policy is not generally applicable because it prohibits religious speech, and only religious speech, from being broadcast over the loudspeaker," the lawsuit said. "The FHSAA's denial of Cambridge Christian's request for prayer over the loudspeaker, while allowing for secular messages to be delivered over the loudspeaker and other stadium communications media, constitutes content-based and viewpoint-based discrimination in contravention of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."
What does all that mean? Why not ask a human source? That's what distinguishes the NPR report this week. It helps us grasp the issues, in common language, from a disinterested party.
Now, about those problems. Well, one would be sourcing. Why did NPR ask Professor Catherine Cameron? What is she a professor of? Law? Chemistry? Middle Eastern archaeology? It makes a difference.
Turns out she has degrees in journalism and law from the University of Florida. She also worked as a staff attorney for the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit. All this is on her webpage at Stetson.
The page also explains why NPR consulted Stetson, a school that's s closer to Jacksonville than Tampa. It's because Cameron works at Stetson's Gulfport campus, across Tampa Bay from Cambridge Christian's hometown. Both sets of facts should have been in the NPR story.
But to date, none of the media including NPR, once again, have addressed the basic questions I've previously raised.
One question: How is prayer over a microphone at a publicly funded stadium different from prayer off a mike at the same place? It probably has to do with whether people have to listen, but I don’t see it explained here.
Also: Does the right to pray require the City of Orlando to amplify the prayers?
Finally: Would Cambridge Christian be OK with listening to amplified prayers by, say, Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists? This is not a legality; but it would be interesting to see if the Lancers called it a fair catch or throw a flag on the play.
Thumbnail photo: Lancers logo of Cambridge Christian School.