This case arose after two private religious high schools in Florida sought to use the public-address system at a state football championship game to lead players and fans in a communal pregame prayer. The Florida High School Athletic Association – a state actor responsible for overseeing the championship game – declined the schools’ request. The Athletic Association does not grant any school access to the PA system during pregame ceremonies at championship games, and so it was rightly concerned about the constitutional issues that would arise if it granted special access for a religious message.
One of the schools sued the Athletic Association, claiming that the Association had violated the school’s right to free speech and freedom of religion. After a federal district court dismissed the school’s claims, the school appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Americans United then filed, in December 2017, an amicus brief in support of the Athletic Association. In November 2019, the Eleventh Circuit sent the case back to the district court for additional fact-finding.
On March 31, 2022, after reviewing a full factual record, the federal district court rejected the school’s arguments and ruled that the school did not have a constitutional right to access the public-address system to lead communal prayer. The school again appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
On October 14, 2022, Americans United again filed an amicus brief in support of the Athletic Association. We argued that the Athletic Association’s actions did not violate the school’s right to freely exercise religion, because the Association did not discriminate against religious messages, and the right to religious exercise does not give religious institutions a privilege to extract special benefits from the government that are not available to others. We further explained that if the Athletic Association had granted the school special access to the PA system for prayer, the Association would have violated the constitutionally mandated separation between religion and government. The government must not coerce members of the public – especially vulnerable youths – to participate in prayer. Nor may it favor one religion over nonreligion. Our amicus brief was joined by a number of religious and civil rights organizations.