Can the Government Silence Religious Speech in a Stadium Christened by Billy Graham?

Can the Government Silence Religious Speech in a Stadium Christened by Billy Graham?
Cambridge Christian School students praying at high school football game, per their tradition Photo credit: Beth Dare Photography, courtesy of First Liberty

On Wednesday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case Cambridge Christian School v. Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA), a case determining whether or not the government can prevent a Christian school from using a stadium loudspeaker to pray. The FHSAA denied Cambridge Christian School the use of the same loudspeaker that the Reverend Billy Graham used to christen that very stadium with prayer.

“We know that the reason why they denied this request for prayer is because of the religious viewpoint that would be expressed in the speech,” Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel for First Liberty, told PJ Media. Had the FHSAA refused the loudspeaker in general, the case would not involve anti-religious discrimination, he argued.

“They said no, because it’s religious. That’s what violated the Constitution,” Dys explained. “It would not have been discrimination if they had said, ‘No, they cannot give comments before the game.'”

The association argued that if it allowed the microphone to be used for prayer — as it was by Billy Graham — it would be violating the establishment clause of the Constitution and effectively establishing a religion. By doing so, it “was actually engaged in religious hostility to the religious beliefs of Cambridge Christian School,” the lawyer explained.

“This is very longstanding Supreme Court precedent that the government cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination in any forum,” Dys argued. “The state has to remain neutral to the religious exercise of its citizens.”

The First Liberty lawyer claimed that, if FHSAA’s denial were to be upheld, “it’s effectively telling every student there and everybody watching that prayer in public is wrong. Just because it takes place over a state-owned microphone, prayer in public is bad.”

Dys noted, however, that Billy Graham himself christened the stadiums in question. “Billy Graham, I think, engaged in religious speech over the very same speakers,” he said. Any hesitance was based on the possibility that the speakers have been replaced, not doubt about whether or not Graham preached at the stadiums in question.

“Under this holding, because this is state-owned property and a state-owned microphone, the state could deny religious speech from being broadcast,” Dys explained. This would run roughshod over the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals was reconsidering a district court’s dismissal of Cambridge Christian School’s complaint. Dys, who took part in oral arguments on Wednesday, said the court of appeals was “certainly concerned with the fact that the district court acted too quickly in dismissing the complaint.” The court carefully weighed the arguments this week, suggesting they might overturn the decision and find in favor of Cambridge Christian School.

As Dys wrote in an op-ed on the case for The Hill, “If the First Amendment does not protect the right of two Christian schools to pray for 30 seconds over a city-owned loudspeaker in 2015, can it protect the next Billy Graham who wants to use the same public address system in the same stadium?”

The anti-religious hostility on display in this case is astounding and utterly out of keeping with America’s rich religious heritage and protections on free speech. Public spaces and public microphones are not off-limits to religious free speech just because it is religious.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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