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Tampa Christian School Defends Football Pre-Game Prayer In Federal Court

Courtesy Tampa Bay Times

The Friday night lights are shining over Skyway Park in Tampa as the Cambridge Christian School Lancers end their season undefeated with a 45 to 6 win over Carrolwood Day School.

The victory celebration then quiets down as the players and coaches march midfield to shake hand with their opponents. And as the crowd files out of the park the team gathers for a post-game prayer.

To the team and the school, community prayer before and after the game is the more important than who wins. That's why before and after every home game a prayer is said over a loudspeaker. The school's headmaster Tim Euler says that's so family and friends in the stands can hear the prayer.

"It gives our families an opportunity to come together as moms and sons dads and sons for a moment before the game just a prayer of thanksgiving," says Euler. 

Cambridge Christian School has had a successful run in the playoffs that they hope will earn them a return to Camping World Stadium. And  like they did when they made it last year, the school will ask the Florida High School Athletic Association to allow them to use the venue's public address system.

A year ago, that request was denied and in September the school filed a lawsuit against the organization that manages high school sports in Florida alleging they violated their civil rights to religious freedom and free speech.

"The state needs to be neutral towards the expression of religion in public not telling everybody including all the student athletes that are watching that somehow engaging in religious speech in public is wrong," says Jeremy Dys, a lawyer with the First Liberty Institute, a legal organization focused on religious cases and one of the law firms are representing the school.

"The Constitution fully protects schools like Cambridge and the students at the school to be able to engage their faith in the school out of the school and certainly in the public sector at large as well. That's why this case is so important," says Dys. 

But the high school sports association has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit saying it is obligated to uphold another part of the First Amendment in not allowing what would amount to a state-sponsored prayer in a facility predominantly paid for with public tax dollars.

The organization declined to comment for this story but Catherine Cameron- a professor at Stetson University says both sides have merit.

"Obviously the First Amendment the way its structured it’s pretty clear that the government can't have a law that would restrict somebody from expressing their free speech," says 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," says Cameron. 

While no hearing has been scheduled, high school football continues under the Friday Night Lights .Back at Cambridge Christian School- no matter when the season ends -  prayer will continue. The only question is whether or not it's over a loudspeaker. 

Cathy Carter is the education reporter for WUSF 89.7 and StateImpact Florida.
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