The religious liberty provisions of the First Amendment protect everybody’s religious freedom. That means that private individuals and organizations can promote religion, but they can’t force government to do so. That’s what Americans United and our allied organizations explained in a friend-of-the-court brief we that filed yesterday in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case goes back to December 2015 and involves a state football championship game that happened to be played by two private, Christian high schools: Cambridge Christian School and University Christian School. Although both of the schools are private entities, the game was sponsored and conducted by the Florida High School Athletic Association, a state agency. Officials at the Athletic Association denied the schools’ request to open the game with a prayer broadcast over the state’s loudspeaker for all to hear because that would violate the religious-freedom rights of the listeners. But the Athletic Association did let the two teams pray together on the field before the game, without the loudspeaker.
Attendees at a government-sponsored athletic event shouldn't be pressured to take part in religious worship.
Cambridge Christian sued, arguing that its rights were being violated. A federal trial court ruled in favor of the state earlier this year, and the school appealed. Now we’re urging the appeals court to rule against the school again.
Everyone agrees that Cambridge Christian, as a private entity, has the right to broadcast prayer when it holds its own school events and activities. But the championship game is another matter because broadcasting the prayer would have been a governmental endorsement of religion. With the minor exception of music during half-time, the state didn’t let anybody other than the official state announcer use the loudspeaker.
Giving a religious speaker a unique right to use the loudspeaker so it could ask the crowd to pray during the opening ceremonies of a government-run event would have sent the message that the State supported that prayer. And – given that the audience of more than 1,800 included many impressionable schoolchildren – that governmental endorsement would have told them that they should pray too.
None of this is to say that the Christian school and its students don’t have the right to pray. In fact, they did pray as a group on the field right before the game. What the school doesn’t have the right to do is to force the government to assist it in imposing its religious beliefs on others. The state did everything right in this case: It didn’t infringe anyone’s right to religious exercise, nor did it force anybody else to engage in that exercise.