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.

  • Javier

    FFRF just announced they will stop doing sectarian prayers:

  • Desiree Bell-Fowlks

    Well this school will be watched very carefully.  A lawsuit would definately be expensive for the school to defend.  I hope they keep that in mind.

  • Guest

    Wow, nice threats.  

  • Reason_Being

    Let’s hope it really is a partial victory, though I would much rather see the absence of all prayer. Thanks for sharing this story.  Keep us updated on it if there are any future developments of note.

  • TychaBrahe

    In the word of every hack writer of action movies, “That’s not a threat; that’s a promise.”  The purpose of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is to file suit against violators o the First Amendment.

  • Andrew B.

    It’s a last resort when dealing with those that have neither an understanding of Church-State separation nor the basic decency to avoid abusing their authority to promote their religion.  Lawsuits are indeed unfortunate, but they wouldn’t have to happen if Christians could behave more responsibly.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    Christian privilege in action… any of the kind of prayers they’d find acceptable to their Christian expectations are so unlike any other religions would want, not to mention atheists (and Christians who respect the verse about not praying in public) not wanting any prayer at all; there really is no such thing as this ‘nonsectarian prayer’ bullshit.

  • Desiree Bell-Fowlks

    It’s no threat.  It’s the consequence of not obeying the law.  They have been warned to follow the law already. 

  • Rich Wilson

    I hope God isn’t offended by their blatant display of ceremonial Deism.

  • Travshad

    I got a very different impression than Elisabeth Spratt on what can be said in the “non-sectarian” prayer. From reading the Chaudhuri decision, it seems like all they need to do is make sure the words “Jesus Christ” aren’t in the prayer.  The majority in this decision thought that a prayer with the words “Most Heavenly Father”,   ” to understand in God all things are possible”, and “These and all blessings we ask from a God that we know, let us all say ․ Amen.”  was non-sectarian enough.

    It seems the Chaudhuri decision takes a very wide view of what is considered non-sectarian.  It is not really clear whether the court actually rulled on the sectarian prayer issue or considered it moot.  In the dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge Jones wrote that the majority opinion was “unclear” on this matter.

  • Gus Snarp

    I’d be curious to hear their supposed secular purpose to the prayer. Are they solemnifying the inflicting of traumatic brain injuries?

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Do you feel that you’ve been threatened every time you see a speed limit or a stop sign? If you don’t obey the law, they will fine or jail you. Simple like that.

  • Dats3

    LOL! Actually, they could make a “solemmifying” arguement.  UT football is almost a religion here anyway. 

  • Rich Wilson

    ‘almost’?  The only religion that enjoys more privilege in the USA than Christianity is College Football.

  • StarStuff

    waaaaaaaaaaaaah!  You’re oppressing me!!!

  • Blacksheep

    You sound like big brother. Why does anyone at all (Christian, atheist, etc.) need to be “watched very carefully.”? perhaps because I’m basically a Libertarian, the whole idea of that sentiment sounds controlling.

  • Debaw315

    So why atheism why choose that to be your purpose in life, to decry any religion?  Why does religion bother you so much?  And is it Christianity that bothers you the most. Are you as opposed to other forms of religion.  Someone quoted that there may be as many as 6000 religions worldwide.  My next question is are all the amendments to the constitution and laws as important as this one to you.    Like the law of speeding, do you speed, if you do then you are endangering the same people you want to protect from religion, right?  Have you ever driven drunk, then you are endangering the same people you want to protect.  Do you smoke pot or use other illegal drugs.  Is it ok with you to violate these laws or any other law you may have broken.  That is why I don’t get the view here, if you are not going to uphold all the laws in the city, state and country you live in then how can you take such a big  stand on this one law.  However I could be wrong and you folks may have never broken any law on a regular basis?   If you break the law at all why does it bother you when other people break the law?

  • Concerned Citizen

    What good is the law if you can’t use it to bludgeon people who disagree with you?

  • Concerned Citizen

    Didn’t Engel v. Vitale rule that you can’t have sanctioned prayer by a publically-funded school, even if it is nominally “nonsectarian”? It seems like FFRF should have more of an argument.

    PS I live in Knoxville, you should hear all the local pundits crowing about UT’s courage for retaining the prayer.

  • Richard Wade

    So this is a game where large men or boys wear very colorful clothes over fiberglass armor, butting their helmeted heads together while chasing a ball that looks like a fish without fins or tail, or a very large goat turd.

    And they want this activity to be solemn.

    Well I guess only the intervention of an almighty being would be able to do that.

  • Rich Wilson

    Why does religion bother you so much?

    Because many religious people think that their religiously based laws should apply to me, even if I don’t believe in their religion.  Or that their religiously based myths should be taught in science class.

    And is it Christianity that bothers you the most.

    Christianity is usually the religion doing those things to me because I live in a predominately Christian nation.  Jews, Muslims and Hindus aren’t generally trying to control my diet, circumcise my son or put a red dot on my forehead.

    There’s a big difference between the Constitution and the uniform vehicle code.  As it happens I pay pretty close attention to my driving, and although I do drift over the speed limit on occasion, if I were caught, I would accept my ticket and move on.

    But reverse your argument.  What you seem to be saying, if I understand, is that if you break the speed limit then you really have no position to criticize the breaking of any other laws.  If you think this is actually a violation of the Constitution, but we should ‘let is slide’, then what other laws are you willing to let slide?  If all laws are equal, and we should turn the other way for one law, then doesn’t that mean we should ignore murder?  I’m sure that’s not your position, but I don’t think you’re thinking through your argument.


    What will it take to get it across to folks like this, that the freedom of religion, along with every other constitutional right, are not matters of majority rule? The Bill of Rights is there to protect the individual against the tyranny of the majority.

  • Drew M.

     Only hack writers do that? Dammit!

    *Deletes scene, starts from scratch*

  • Bball246165

    They violated the law once already. Schools like this one think they can get away with breaking the law if no one is paying attention. FFRF got involved in this because someone from the school contacted them about the prayers. Their rights are as important as others at the school.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    Why does “solemnifying” anything entail spouting religious bullshit, anyway? (Of course it doesn’t/shouldn’t. Hellooo, privilege-favoring judges/legislators!)

    If they want “solemnifying”, how about saying something actually relevant to reality, like “We thank these athletes for their years of dedicated practice, and willingness to risk injury, to represent University of Tennessee, Knoxville in this sport. Please appreciate their hard work as you enjoy the game.”

  • TheBlackCat


    Like the law of speeding, do you speed, if you do then you are
    endangering the same people you want to protect from religion, right? 
    Have you ever driven drunk, then you are endangering the same people you
    want to protect.  Do you smoke pot or use other illegal drugs.  Is it
    ok with you to violate these laws or any other law you may have broken. 

    No, no, and no.  Thanks for playing.

    That is why I don’t get the view here, if you are not going to uphold
    all the laws in the city, state and country you live in then how can you
    take such a big  stand on this one law.

    Even if we grant your premise, which I don’t:

    1. Breaking some laws is worse than others.  That is why we have different punishments for different offenses
    2. Some law-breaking affect many more people than others.  Smoking pot doesn’t hurt anyone but yourself.  This, on the other hand, affects an entire community
    3. There is a big difference between an individual breaking the law and the government breaking the law

  • coyotenose

     What good is being a wannabe martyr if you can’t lie about the people who defend your Constitution for you?

  • coyotenose

     No, actually, she doesn’t sound a thing like the novel 1984*. She sounds like someone who grasps that the sort of theists who do this also tend to be the sort who deliberately circumvent the law when they don’t get their way. Considering how often the subject has come up here, the only thing here that is concerning is your acting unaware of that.

    *Not to claim that Blacksheep hasn’t read 1984, but I’m reminded by the exchange: We really need something like the Salem Hypothesis or Poe’s Law to describe people who cite Orwell. Almost no conservative who references it is actually familiar with it.

  • coyotenose

     If you consider “Break the law and violate peoples’ civil rights and we’ll file a lawsuit” to be threats or worth complaining about, that’s an issue with YOUR worldview and sense of privilege, not with anyone else.

  • coyotenose

     Your own, um, “argument”, restated:

    “How dare you want murderers imprisoned? Haven’t you ever done 58 mph in a 55 zone? You have no right to judge!”

    Jesus fucking Christ.

  • Prinzler

    To put a fine point on it:

    Whether a person who demands that a law be upheld has broken any (other) law(s) is irrelevant to the validity of the person’s demand that the law be upheld.

  • Darrell Ross

    Sweet. Seems more like a delayed victory. The school is merely postponing the inevitable. Based on my experience with theists and their attachments to their beliefs, I don’t blame them.

    Just need to make sure to catch them with their hands in the cookie jar. Should be easy.

  • A3Kr0n

    I still think destroying bible verses by running through them is disrespectful.
    But what do I know?

  • nakedanthropologist

    I live in Knoxville too, and its so disheartening to see this sort of shit.  “We get to keep Christian priveledge, yay!”  Wow, thanks UTK.  Way to let me know that you don’t give a shit about a sizeable portion of your student body/fan base.  We couldn’t have gone with a moment of silence that placates and respects everyone?  No, no I guess that would be too much – equality is so controversial these days.

  • Vol Alum

    Thanks for continuing to post on this issue.  What I am also interested to find out is if UT will continue it’s tradition of calling out the name of the individual, their affiliated religious organization, and their ordained title.  It usually goes like this:  Please stand for the invocation by the reverend John Doe of the University of Tennessee Baptist Student Union.

  • Vol Alum

    The University of Tennessee is a public institution. Every single person’s tax dollars in this state support this institution. I do mean every person, legal or illegal, regardless of race, creed, religion, gender, sexual orientation, marriage status, or even educational attainment. The school does not admit students based on religious affiliation and it is illegal for them to even consider religious affiliation as part of an application. Yet, these are the students that fellow students, alumni, Tennessee residents, and fans gather to see play on the field, perform in the band, and cheer for the team.  The stadium sits on this public campus. The crowd of 102,000 people, who bought tickets, are coming to see a football game at a public university, outside of any religious context. It is not appropriate to hold an audience captive in public prayer led from the field over the loud speaker by a campus minister who represents a specific religion!We do not need prayer before a football game at this public university. Not every religious person prays around 101,999 other people at the same time. Not every religious person prays standing up. Not every religious person prays while wearing wild colors or while wearing facepaint and silly hats, or only being half-dressed and donning body paint. Not every religious person prays around those who have partaken of “other spirits.” And, not every person is religious. No one, who again, is attending a football game at a public university, should have to be continuously subjected to any prayer, regardless of whether or not that prayer invokes the name of Jesus Christ.I have come to the conclusion that prayer at football games at the University of Tennessee is nothing more than a public religious spectacle on the largest stage in the state and 9th largest stage in the world. We do not pray at basketball games, baseball games, (certainly not any girls’ sports), track meets, swim meets or any other sports event I have ever attended. I have never heard anyone at a Lady Vols basketball game suddenly express distress in not praying before a game. We do not pray at the movies, at theater performances, or concerts. I have never seen or heard a student or group of students claim their right to pray is being taken away at events where no prayer has traditionally existed, even though those events still have huge crowds. So, why is it so important to pray at football games? The reason is this is where the most people are gathered and where the biggest public prayer spectacle can be made and a religious will imposed upon people whether or not they want it.Interestingly, I have observed that the presence of a crowd of people at Neyland Stadium does not automatically result in public prayer. Every year anywhere from 10,000-50,000 people gather at Neyland Stadium for the orange and white game and I have never, in my experience, been part of a public prayer at the Orange and White game. I have also attended a Kenny Chesney concert in the same stadium with more than 60,000 people, who were not led and did not find the need for public prayer. I highly doubt the 6,000 freshmen who were gloriously taken into Neyland Stadium last month, were led in prayer. I have even attended a UT Junior Varsity football game in Neyland Stadium and there was not a public prayer. So, the venue does not dictate the prayer and the presence of a crowd at the venue does not dictate the need for prayer. When there is a varsity game on a Saturday between September and November in Neyland Stadium, suddenly there is public prayer, and anyone who questions it is called anti-christian and evil.  They are invited to leave the country, the state, the city, the campus, and the game! This prayer is truly nothing more than a culturally conditioned public spectacle. This is not about communing with God. But, it is about using public space and public resources and forcing the largest group of people in the state and 9th largest in the world that come together without religious purpose and outside of a religious context to prayer.Since I was a freshman, this is the first time UT has been seriously challenged on this issue.  However, it does not mean it has not been quietly discussed by students on campus and discussed by professors who have taught their students that this activity is unconstitutional.  Just because UT has not been challenged does not mean there are not students who feel violated by this practice.  It is time to end this practice.  UT espouses to accepting all people and the biggest event on campus is still UT football.  Like all other sporting events, UT football should be a place for everyone at all times, regardless of religious affiliation, preference for prayer, or no religious affiliation at all. I love this University.  Suffice it to say I am highly invested in this University and its athletic program. I hold two degrees from UT, have been a member of one of the Varsity athletic teams, have attended over 50 football games, and have been highly involved in campus life.  I have taken international students who come here with different religious affiliations to our football games, so they can experience our great athletic traditions.  I have also been friends with many different campus ministers from many different groups.  They have an important job to work with the youth who are at UT and seek religious guidance.  But, it is not their job and it is not appropriate for these ministers to be given the microphone and access to 100,000 people for their religious message.  It is time for prayer at football games to end and for the gates of Neyland Stadium to truly be open to everyone for the entire duration of a UT football event.

  • The Watcher X

     In other words, you’re asking what good is the law if you can’t enforce it? Good question, I often ask the same thing myself.