University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Will No Longer Have Christian Prayers Before Football Games

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga used to recite Christian prayers before football games. But in May, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent them a letter (PDF) asking them to put a stop to it:

Our complainant, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football game attendee, reports that the invocations at football games from 2010 until the current season have been delivered by a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It is our information and understanding that these prayers conclude with the reference to praying in the name of Jesus Christ.

While students, athletes, and athletic event attendees may choose to gather privately in prayer, a public university has no place in encouraging or endorsing religious ritual.

It wasn’t a threat. It wasn’t a subtle lawsuit-in-waiting. It just pointed out the problem to the university chancellor and requested a response.

And, as the letter noted, attendees are free to pray on their own. The school just can’t make Christian prayers an official part of the game.

For months, the school didn’t respond. But yesterday, they finally issued a statement on the matter — just days before the first home game:

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Chancellor Roger Brown said this afternoon that the university immediately will begin observing a moment of silence, rather than a spoken prayer, before its football games.

“We believe this allows all in attendance to reflect and address their individual beliefs in their own ways,” Brown said at a news conference. “Events such as football games should provide opportunities to bring all members of our community together.”

It took a while but it’s the right decision by the school. They’re staving off a potential lawsuit while still giving Christians time to pray if they want. (No doubt Christians will still complain that they’re not receiving special treatment.)

The UTC Secular Student Alliance, which had supported the FFRF in this matter, was thrilled to hear about the change:

Today, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Secular Student Alliance today celebrated an important victory for unalienable rights of freedom from state sponsored religion. We are pleased to hear the University has chosen an [inclusive] alternative over the former policy of Christian prayer before Football games. A moment of silence provides a solemn and secular alternative to Religious prayer and respects the rights of people of all faiths or no faiths. We encourage other institutions currently embroiled in similar controversies to follow the University’s example.

I spoke with Bryan Barkley, the co-chair of UTC SSA, last night and asked him what he thought about this decision:

I am very pleased with the outcome and the university accepting UTC SSA’s alternative proposal of a moment of Silence. I am, however, disappointed in the university waiting four months since the Freedom From Religion Foundation letter [was sent]… to respond. It was only after an extensive public awareness campaign by UTC SSA and media scrutiny that this was resolved.

Hopefully, this will at least send a message to any other school opting to turn their athletic program into an extension of the Christian church.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.