KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The University of Tennessee (UT), in rejecting a request from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) to eliminate the Volunteers’ traditional pregame prayer, has garnered praise from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
“We’re very pleased that the University of Tennessee has seen fit to disregard the Freedom From Religion Foundation,” said Travis Barham, litigation staff counsel for ADF. “We hope they continue to do that because the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been distorting the law, twisting the law, to support its jaundiced view of religion, its jaundiced view of the First Amendment.”
Baptist Press surveyed all other schools in the Southeastern Conference and found that South Carolina is the only other university to offer a public invocation prior to football games.
In a Sept. 13 letter to UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said the organization had received a complaint from a UT alumnus about the public invocations at Neyland Stadium prior to Tennessee football games. She urged UT to “take action to stop any further involvement, endorsement, encouraging or scheduling of prayers at university functions and sporting events.”
Cheek, in a Sept. 17 response, said he had discussed the matter with the school’s legal counsel, who informed him that the university’s prayers do not violate the U.S. Constitution. He told FFRF that the practice would continue.
ADF, a national organization that defends Christians’ rights to live out their faith, said UT is well within its rights to continue the practice. Barham, in an interview with Baptist Press, cited decisions from the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Sixth and Seventh Circuits that upheld university prayers as being consistent with the First Amendment. Barham said FFRF doesn’t accurately represent case law in regard to what the courts have said about the First Amendment and what universities can and can’t do at their events.
“The notion that you would trust somebody with the name ‘Freedom From Religion’ on an issue dealing with religion is, frankly, absurd, and we would hope that more universities would follow in the footsteps of the University of Tennessee and tell the Freedom From Religion Foundation to move along,” Barham said.
FFRF in a Sept. 19 press release tried to claim a victory from the exchange with UT, reporting that “sectarian prayer by Christian clergy over the loudspeaker at University of Tennessee-Knoxville football games will be dropped.” But Bob Hall, director of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at UT, said the “nonsectarian prayers” at the football games have been standard for more than a decade.
Hall, who has been at UT for more than 40 years, previously led the pregame prayers on occasion but said he stopped doing so about 10 years ago when the university’s guidelines for the prayers became more specific.
“They were counseling prayers to refer to God in generic terms – ‘our heavenly Father’ or ‘gracious Lord’ or whatever,” Hall said. “But specifically, they requested that we not pray in the name of Jesus.”
That restriction was problematic for Hall “because Christ is Lord of my life, Christ is Lord of this ministry, and we’re very open and unapologetic about that, about our stance. If Christ is Lord of all of life, He’s Lord of our prayer life as well.”
Still, Hall said that most students at the university are pleased with the practice of prayer at football games.
“I really commend the university administration and the trustees for having the spiritual sensitivity, and that spiritual sensitivity really doesn’t exist at many other state universities in the nation,” Hall said. “UT prays at commencement, they pray before trustees’ meetings. There’s an amazingly high support level for the Campus Ministers’ Council, a real high level of trust and collegiality.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tim Ellsworth is editor of BP Sports and director of news and information at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.)