School says state refused them right to pray

Posted at 4:01 PM, Jan 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-26 17:34:45-05

Athletes and administrators say they are defending their religious liberty after the state censored their right to free speech and expression.

Now, Cambridge Christian Academy in Tampa is threatening a federal lawsuit against the Florida High School Athletic Association after it says it was denied the right to pray over the loudspeaker before the Citrus Bowl game in Orlando.

The Cambridge Christian Academy Lancers were playing another Christian school and said they hoped to carry on their tradition of praying over the loudspeaker before that big game.

"When we were told that we couldn't pray, we were just like, 'Why?'" said Jacob Enns, the team's kicker.

Enns said the team felt the state was sending them a loud, clear message:

"That prayer is wrong, and that is something that as high school football players we couldn't really understand," Enns said.

"It was frustrating," Principal Tim Euler said. "It hurt. We were upset about it, but we firmly believe this is something that can be resolved."

Cambridge Christian Academy provided emails to ABC Action News dated Dec. 2, 2015, prior to the Citrus Bowl game. In it, Euler wrote to the FHSAA, asking for the two schools to be allowed to pray over the loudspeaker before the game.

In a response sent later that day, Dr. Roger Dearing, FHSAA executive director, replied, saying that although both schools are private and religious-affiliated institutions, the federal law addresses two pertinent issues preventing FHSAA from granting the request.

The email went on to say that because the facility where the game was to be played was a public facility, predominately paid for with public tax dollars, the facility was "off limits" under federal guidelines and precedent court cases.

The email from Dearing also said that under Florida law, the FHSAA is legally a part of the state, and cannot legally permit or grant permission for such an activity.

Dearing apologized, and went on to say he understood why the request was made but he couldn't grant the wish due to tremendous legal entanglements.

However, Cambridge Christian School Attorney Jeremey Dys, of the Liberty Institute, disagrees.

"The law in this country is very clear," Dys said. "You are allowed to engage your prayers, you are allowed to speak in public as a person of faith. You are allowed to pray in public without the government telling you that you can't do that."

He also believes the students' civil rights were violated in not being allowed to pray over the loudspeaker.

"That's the kind of thing you'd expect when the government violates your civil rights," he said.

At the game, both schools prayed on the field anyway, in what Dys calls an "act of civil disobedience."

"It truly felt like it was the right thing," Enns said. "It became more than a game, than any other game, because of that." 

Dys said if Cambridge Christian School does not receive a formal apology from FHSAA within 30 days, they will file a lawsuit in federal court, alleging the state (FHSAA) violated student civil rights.

ABC Action News reached out to FHSAA's spokesperson but did not immediately hear back in time.

Photos and video in the story are courtesy of photographer Larry Wiezycki.