By Andrew L. Seidel
Freedom From Religion Foundation
The Florida High School Athletic Association, which organizes and hosts the state football playoffs at a public facility, refused to allow its loudspeaker to be used for a private prayer.
Two Christian schools made the playoffs and, though they prayed before the game, weren’t given the PA to broadcast those prayers to everyone at the government-sponsored event. Now they’re claiming persecution and we at FFRF are stepping in to help the FHSAA.
As is their right, the students prayed on the field before the game, and were specifically informed that by the FHSAA “that they could pray at halftime, they could pray after the game — whatever they wanted to do with their teams.” (We’re not even sure they were able to play the game with all that praying; where did they find the time?)
But that was not enough to satisfy their Christian privilege. You can almost hear the persecution complex running through their minds: “You mean I can pray on the field before, after, and during the game, but that I can’t use the loudspeaker to impose that prayer on everyone? I’m a persecuted Christian!” Liberty Institute, the same group that is representing the Washington coach who couldn’t stop imposing his religion on his players, wrote to the FHSAA demanding an apology.
Look at how Liberty Institute, which also awarded FFRF the prestigious Scrooge Award for our work keeping state and church separate in 2015, tried to spin this: “For the government to say ‘No, you can’t engage in that kind of speech’ is wrong.” Remember, the teams prayed together on the field. The speech wasn’t banned, the government just refused to give them a loudspeaker to promote their private religious message.
Todd Starnes, not known for his grasp of facts or reality but well-known for inventing stories of Christian persecution, spun the story with this headline: “Florida: Christian schools can’t pray at championship game.” Nevermind that they actually prayed and that nobody tried to stop them—the real story is too rational and not at all persecute-y enough for Starnes. He even called the FHSAA’s decision a “prayer ban.”
Liberty Institute’s botched letter to the FHSAA does backflips to show that the prayers are “private, religious speech.” Which is fine, but the government is obviously not required to give a megaphone to every loon that wants to be heard. This is not a case where the FHSAA opened a loudspeaker forum for anyone to use to promote any message. The loudspeaker was there solely for FHSAA, and these Christians wanted to use it to impose their religion on everyone.
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Oh, and the letter glosses over an important Supreme Court case from 2000, which specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at publicly organized athletic events, even when student-led. Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000).
FFRF has stepped in to support the FHSAA. In our letter, I explained that Liberty Institute’s claims about “private, religious speech” are “self-defeating.” If the speech is private, the government has no obligation to amplify it.
Hopefully, FHSAA will stay strong in the face of this religious privilege. We’ll keep you informed.
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[An earlier version of this story said that Coach Kennedy coached in Oregon. He coached in Washington. This has been corrected.]