A Challenge to Football Prayers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The Freedom From Religion Foundation only sends complaint letters to groups violating church/state separation if someone contacts them about it. In other words, they don’t seek out random challenges.

Recently, students from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga informed FFRF about public prayers that took place at football games. To their credit, UTC officials said earlier this week they would put a stop to that practice.

On Thursday, I pointed out that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville suffers from the same issue: Football games at the public school are used to endorse Christianity.

And wouldn’t you know it… by Thursday afternoon, FFRF had sent the school a letter telling them that what they are doing is illegal and needs to stop (PDF). (Just to be clear, I can’t take credit for that. Apparently, FFRF has been getting messages about the UTK prayers for weeks — in addition to an isolated complaint back in August — and it just coincidentally worked out that way.)

It’s a T, not a cross

We were contacted in August by an alum regarding prayers before UTK football games. Our complainant informed us that an announcer asks all attendees to stand for the invocation, which is delivered by a clergy member. It is also our information and understanding that the pastors giving the prayers routinely invoked Jesus Christ.

As you are undoubtedly aware, FFRF sent a letter of complaint to the University of Tennessee Chattanooga (UTC) regarding prayer at its football games in May of this year. Earlier this week UTC Chancellor Roger Brown announced that UTC would no longer schedule prayers at the start of football games. Instead, in an effort to be more inclusive and allow “all in attendance to reflect and address their individual beliefs in their own ways,” UTC will observe a moment of silence. This change has garnered widespread media attention and this week FFRF has received additional complaints from students at UTK regarding prayers at Neyland Stadium.

The ball’s in UTK’s court (or, I should say, field). This is a simple change and one that should be implemented immediately.

It shouldn’t be a big deal, right? In Knoxville, college football trumps the church when it comes to religion, anyway :)

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.

  • Octothorpe47
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Aaron-Scoggin/100000044792747 Aaron Scoggin

    The only reason to get upset about having a moment of silence instead of a prayer is because you’re angry that you can no longer force your religion on others.

  • John Purcell

    I don’t understand this need to start every official function, whether it be a football game, a school board meeting, or Congress, with some nod to the supernatural. Even a moment of silence is telling everyone {wink, wink, nudge, nudge} that it’s time to pray.

    If it’s a football game; play football. If it’s a school board meeting; meet. If it’s Congress; legislate for fuck’s sake. Save the goddamn prayers for church.

  • http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/ James A. Lindsay

    As an atheist from Knoxville, I can tell you right now that, while I’m glad this is happening, it’s not going to go well. I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear about riots over this. Football is religion for folks here, and this will be seen as messing with a tradition that is sacrosanct in at least two incredibly important ways. Should be interesting….

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

    But we all know it is God who decides what team is going to win.

  • Red

    As an atheist what causes you to enforce your beliefs over someone elses? Let us pray to our supposed made up God if we want – why do you even care? 

    Sure, you could claim that it’s because we try to impose our beliefs on you, but that’s being merely contrarian – not atheistic. I mean, we obviously have reasons within our belief system that promote being outspoken. What do you have? Seriously. What motivates you to be ‘anti-christian’?? (it doesn’t seem you’re anti-muslim by the way which seems odd – shouldn’t you be angry at prayer to ANY god or do you just not like the christian one??)

    From a purely third-party point of view, you shouldn’t even care. If you really believe there is no God then let us believe in him if we want – it’s as harmless as letting children believe in the tooth-fairy.

    I’m not saying you have to agree with my beliefs, but seriously – why does it matter unless you’ve merely created a counter-religion simply because God is too big a pill to swallow? I honestly can’t come up with a reason you would be so motivated to quiet our desire to pray. If someone could explain that to me without reducing to namecalling and derision I’d appreciate it.

  • allein

    Christianity gets the most attention because it is the most visible in this country, simple as that. There are plenty of posts about Muslims on this blog, by the way; they’re just not the ones holding public prayers during every event they can manage. That’s why the public prayer argument centers around Christianity.

    Personally, I don’t care what you believe, or what you pray to. Or where. Or when. But when official meetings, state-school events (games, graduations, etc.), and other public (as in sponsored in some way by a government entity, not simply visible to the public) events begin with prayers as an official part of the agenda, that sends the message that everyone in attendance is expected to be a part of it. I, personally, do not pray at all. Some people pray to something other than the Christian god. Most of these types of prayers are called “nondenominational” but are still clearly being offered up to a specific god concept. It is not the place of any government entity to be opening meetings and games and everything else with religious activities.

    It’s not about hating Christianity or religion in general, and it’s not about making everyone be “atheist.” Keeping religion out of government-sponsored events is in no way infringing on your personal right to practice your religion.

  • Cincinatheist

    Easy. Because it is unconstitutional.

  • Red

     The constitution supports freedom OF religion, not enforced lack thereof… this, by the way isn’t government – it’s a college.

    by the way, I’ve yet to find “separation of church and state” anywhere in the constitution…

  • Red

     @f32a6109b8095d179e989cefc0aa9f81:disqus thank you for your civility in answering me. I can understand where you’re coming from and why you believe that way. In fact, I somewhat agree with you that the government shouldn’t necessarily have the power to make it a part of the agenda, however I do feel individuals within the government should still be able to express their view, ie christianity, atheism etc.

    However, this is not a government sponsored event. It’s a public football game.

  • allein

    It is a state school.

    You don’t need the explicit words to recognize the idea.

    For the record, I’m not “anti-Christian”…I was raised Methodist and most of my family and friends are some flavor of Christian. One of my friends is Muslim (and married to a Christian; they had both a minister and an imam perform the ceremony). In general, religion doesn’t come up in my everyday life. They don’t try to make me practice their religion (outside of the occasional grace said at holiday dinners, during which, since I’m in someone else’s house, I keep my thoughts to myself). I go to their church weddings and children’s baptisms and celebrate with them. Most people in my life don’t know I’m an atheist because in general it doesn’t come up. They may notice I’m not religious if they’re paying attention, but no one’s ever mentioned it. Perhaps if they were more aggressive about their Christianity I would feel it necessary to “come out” to them about my atheism, but they’re not, so I don’t.

  • james Hampton

    I definitely have To become a member of Freedom From Religion

  • Cincinatheist

    You know what else isn’t in the constitution? ‘Right to privacy.’  Or ‘Right to a fair trial.’  Absence of the exact wording doesn’t mean absence of the idea.

    And you can’t have freedom OF your religion without freedom FROM my religion. One begets the other. 

    And no, this isn’t government, it’s a public university. Same reason why you can’t hang the ten commandments in a public school. Public, tax-payer supported institutions must remain religiously neutral. 

    These are tired arguments. Case law and legal precendent are not on your side. Get over it. Pray whenever and wherever you want, personally (y’know, like Matthew 6:5-6 in your holy book says.) Just don’t expect to force 100,000 people in a football stadium to be forced to join you. 

  • allein

    When those individuals are acting in their capacity as government representatives (and that includes employees of public schools), no, they do not. But they are more than welcome to pray on their own time.

    It is a public school. Public schools are government entities.

  • allein

    When those individuals are acting in their capacity as government representatives (and that includes employees of public schools), no, they do not. But they are more than welcome to pray on their own time.

    It is a public school. Public schools are government entities.

  • allein

    I keep saying that, too, and haven’t done it yet.

  • allein

    Oh, and you’re welcome. :)

  • Camorris

    “And you can’t have freedom OF your religion without freedom FROM my religion. One begets the other. ”
    This is a very succinct way of presenting this argument.

  • Edmond

    This is a public school, not a church.  The employees are representatives of the government, they are not clergy.  They’ve been hired in the capacity of teachers and coaches, not priests or pastors.  They have not been appointed as spiritual leaders for these students, nor anyone else.

    When someone wants spiritual guidance and fellowship, they can seek that out.  But their school, a government institution, should not be assuming the role of leadership in religion.  Religion is supposed to be a personal affair, different for everyone.  As I understand it, it’s quite important for each individual to seek their OWN religious identity, under their own initiative.  Yes?  It is completely inappropriate for a government institution to be acting in an instructive, administrative way with regard to the religion of its students, or even the gathered community.

    We all learn to show a certain decorum, depending on the environments we are in.  For example, being in a hospital, or at an airport, or in a library, or at a amusement park, will each elicit a specific, but different, set of behaviors.  My point is that there are many Christians who need to train themselves how to behave when operating in a governmental capacity.  It may not always be comfortable to make yourself do it, but it’s necessary to make sure that government is not promoting a specific religion as an “official position”.  It goes without saying that there will be SOME people in this community, in this crowd, who do NOT share the majority religion, and they do not come to the school grounds to be made into outsiders by the school administration.

    No one is trying to stifle the rights of free citizens to pray, or to take away your beliefs.  The fans at the game can pray all they want, before, during and after the game.  So can the students.  So can the teachers and faculty, for that matter.  But the faculty may not LEAD the students in the prayers and rituals of the faculty’s personal favorite religion, even if everyone shares that same religion.  When they’re acting as government representatives, they may not use that position to act as religious leaders.  The students have NOT been put in their charge for that purpose.

    As others have explained, you don’t see much opposition to Muslims from us, because they are a small minority in this country.  Interactions are rare.  But I’m going to go out on a limb, and guess that you would be protesting right beside us, if teachers at a public school were trying to lead the students in Islamic prayers.  If it’s not ok for THAT religion, then I don’t see any reason why YOUR religion should be allowed to do it either.

    Please feel free to express your religious beliefs while you are walking down the street, or if you’re at the park, or at the mall. You can BE outspoken, in nearly every situation. NEARLY. But if your job description asks you to represent OUR mutual government, then while you have that hat on, you need to keep your religion to yourself. We are not asking Christians to hide their religious beliefs from society. We are only asking that Christians make an effort to recognize when they are acting in a government capacity, and to keep their personal religious beliefs separate from THAT.

    Sorry, that’s my long-winded rant.

  • Joseph

    Football was considered a religion at Penn State as well; unfortunately, they decided to model it after the Catholic Church, with Father Sandusky being enabled and protected by Pope Paterno. 

    Let’s hope UTK does the right thing in this case.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    So let’s just imagine that a new college joins your alma mater’s football league. There’s an away game for your team at their new stadium across town. Can you see where this is going?

    Out come the prayer rugs and everyone of the opposing team and their fans get down and press their foreheads to the ground for several minutes, bobbing up and down in unison. You going to go along to get along, or stand awkwardly? Raise your voice in complaint? Storm out?

    No, of course it wouldn’t happen like that, for lots of reasons. The question is; how would you feel? You can’t empathise with Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and Atheists who have to appear to join in? What about Christians who find the prayers heretical because that’s not what they believe?

    If you are happy to force your beliefs on others, the day may come when someone uses that to force theirs on you. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/EFTarsier Ethan Lucas Fulwood

    I actually wonder how widespread this is at other schools. I know they do an invocation before the Army/Navy game (which are actually federally run universities, so seems even more church/state problematic). I’ve always assumed it was standard in most parts of the country, but I’ve actually only been present for the pre-game activities at UT’s stadium and for a UT/NC State game in the Georgia Dome (where there was also an invocation… I think).

  • Guest 101

    Most on which the militant godless base their outrage has
    little to do with the constitution, but about further expanding the reach of
    Everson v. BOE, the 1947 SC decision that has held up over the years in a
    rather spotty manner. As the constitution says nothing of a “separation of
    church and state”, the “wall” spoken of by the SC comes from a Thomas Jefferson
    letter written 13 years after these clauses originated, yet this has been
    applied in the most nonsensical way imaginable.


    Since atheists mention logic so much (despite their constant
    misuse of it), can you please explain the logic of how an allegory written by
    Jefferson should seriously be used as an authoritative declaration in regards
    to the establishment cause, despite the fact that that Jefferson had nothing to
    do with the creation of those clauses, and his letter post-dated the
    Constitution by 13 years?

  • Guest 101

    The other problem the atheist has is a cultural one.
    Government is of the people, it reflects culture, and America has been and
    still is a predominantly Christian culture. For the atheists attempting to
    litigate culture out of Government, it’s akin to playing a game of
    Whack-A-Mole. Our currency, our pledge, inscriptions in our government
    buildings, crosses at our military cemeteries, the list goes on and on. 

    On a side note, I’m looking forward to the day atheists
    attempt to get the crosses removed at Arlington. Best of luck with that, by the

    On a side note, I’m looking forward to the day atheists
    attempt to get the crosses removed at Arlington. Best of luck with that, by the

  • Guest 101

    I love it when people
    misquote the bible to fit their argument against Christianity!
    Matthew 6 does not tell people to keep their beliefs private, it says do not do
    “acts of righteousness” before men, to be seen by them in an attempt
    to make you look good. Don’t give to the needy for the tax write-off or for the
    service awards. Don’t pray big lengthy prayers to make everyone think you are
    pious. It DOES NOT say keep your religious beliefs to yourself
    Do yourself a favor and actually check into that Holy Book instead of repeating the lies propaganda you read from this and other leftist, God-hating blogs.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    What “crosses at Arlington” are you talking about? Did you make the very common mistake of thinking that Arlington is the/a cemetery with fields filled with cross-shaped headstones? That’s the Normandy cemetery in France, and other less-famous WWI/WWII American overseas cemeteries ( see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Battle_Monuments_Commission ), actually. And even there, left out of or barely noticeable in popular cross-field photos, they do at least have Star-of-David-on-a-stick headstones instead of crosses for Jewish soldiers (although all other soldiers there were assumed to be Christian).

    Arlington’s headstones are almost entirely rectangular-ish neutral shapes with engraved emblems, and have been for a long time. See http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/tolomeo-photographs.htm and most subpages of http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/group-burials.htm for photos of what Arlington actually looks like.

    Various styles of crosses are among 50+ emblems currently approved for personal headstone engraving selections in US government cemeteries such as Arlington National Cemetery. Also among the approved emblems are a Unitarian Universalist symbol, Atheist (the American Atheists symbol), Humanist (the AHA symbol), Wiccan (pentacle), and an infinity symbol. These many emblems are available for personal choice, rather than only Christian crosses and the occasional Jewish stars, due to decades of people’s efforts in petitions and lawsuits.

  • PietPuk


    I love it when people
    misquote the bible to fit their argument against Christianity!

    I love it when christians think they have a monopoly on the ‘correct’ interpretation of any bible.
    You don’t. You’re only giving meaning to how it suits you.

  • Sindigo

    Nicely done.

  • nakedanthropologist

    First of all, atheism isn’t a religion; no one “created” atheism to be anti-Christian.  Nonbelief isn’t really a choice, and has been around for a very long time (longer than Christianity, actually).  For example, I was raised Christian, went to church every Sunday, went to a Christian elementary school and a Catholic graduate school.  I believed, I prayed, and I was heartfelt in my search to deepen my relationship with God.  But little things kept adding up for me – inconsistencies in the bible, the atrocities supposedly committed by God and his followers in the bible, a better understanding of science, and finally the negative impact (or what I perceive as negative) of religion in politics.  I’m an American, so most of the religious people I encounter are Christian; therefore most of religious people who I encounter and  are negative/bigots are Christian: hence the criticisms you see here.  Although if you look around this blog, you’ll find crtiques and concerns about almost every religion.

    Secondly, I have to ask you a question.  Would you be okay with a UTK school official coming on to intercom, asking people to stand for an invocation, and then having a Wiccan priestess come on the field and do that?  Would you be comfortable – would you want to keep standing?  I’m guessing the answer to that is no.  You’re a Christian (I presume from your message) but other people are not.  They’re Vols fans, go to UT, and all that jazz.  But they feel just as uncomfortable with Christian prayer as you feel about other prayers (probably).  Plus, UT is a public university – it receives money from the government.  By doing sectarian prayer before games in an official capacity, UTK is violating the establishment clause in the constitution.  I’m a Vols fan and a Knoxvillian – and thats great for me.  But those prayers do send a message to anyone who isn’t Christian (or even that flavor of Christian, some denominations prohibit public prayer) – that I don’t belong and am not wanted. UT is a public university and should be inclusive of all its students and fans – and that means being neutral on matters of religion.

  • nakedanthropologist

    It depends on the area.  I went to UCF for my undergrad and they did a ‘moment of silence’ thing – I’ve always thought that was a good way to handle it.  There’s an acknowledgement of past tradition without constitutional infringement.

  • nakedanthropologist

    Well said and cited.  Bravo.

  • allein

    I went to a small, religiously-affiliated private college (Church of the Brethren) and I don’t recall prayers before games (soccer; no football). If they did them at all, they were done among the team and not in front of the entire audience.