University of Tennessee Responds to FFRF: We’re Gonna Keep Praying Before Football Games

There’s been a lot of talk about whether the University of Tennessee (in Knoxville) would be forced to end their pre-game prayers as a result of a letter sent (PDF) to the school by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Yesterday, the school’s Chancellor, Jimmy Cheek, responded to the FFRF with a letter of his own (PDF) and he says he’s not budging:

After conferring with the University’s legal counsel, my understanding is that the decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Chaudhuri v. State of Tennessee, which as you note is binding in Tennessee, specifically held that nonsectarian prayer at public university events does not violate the First Amendment.

I appreciate your concern about this issue, and I want to assure you that I have given this issue careful consideration. At this time, however, the University will continue to allow prayers before University events consistent with the Chaudhuri case.

(You can read the text of the Chaudhuri case here.)

Who knew that prayer mentioning the name of Jesus was considered “non-sectarian”?

But it sounds like that won’t be happening any more. The school will make sure of it — and if it doesn’t, there’s a lawsuit with UT’s name on it just waiting to be filed.

Because of that, FFRF is considering this a partial victory:

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation and author of the initial complaint letter, said the organization will not sue because they are limited by the court precedent.

The chancellor’s letter is a partial victory, she said, since alumni and students who complained to her organization said previous prayers had invoked Jesus Christ, rather than remaining nonsectarian.

Still, the organization will continue to encourage students who are uncomfortable with even nonsectarian prayer to speak out.

“That’s a lot of people to offend and exclude, and we’d encourage students to keep working on it,” Gaylor said. “I feel that if people who truly are offended speak out, and there are a lot of them, then eventually we will be able to stop this through persuasion.”

I asked Elisabeth Spratt, one of the members of the Secular Student Alliance at UTK, what she thought about all of this and she thinks some good will come of it because UT will have to seriously change the way it handles the prayers:

… [The prayer at] last Saturday’s football game prayer was the Lord’s Prayer, which is specifically mentioned in the Chaudhuri case as being sectarian. This [result] means we can have no more references to “Our Heavenly Father” — and no more references to an afterlife, a name of any particular religious figure, or even an explicitly male deity, either, according to the judges in the case. Probably the fuzziest point is that the prayer also has to have a secular purpose (in the Chaudhuri case, the prayer was “solemnifying” graduation ceremonies).

So now, we wait to see how the school responds. If they mention anything specific to Christianity, they’d be violating their own rules as well as the law. The SSA group is watching as are thousands of people who religiously follow the team, just waiting for them to fumble this one…

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.


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