It’s football time in Tennessee where longtime gridiron traditions are cherished – from Rocky Top to the Pride of the Southland Marching Band. At the start of every game inside the colossal Neyland Stadium, thousands of the football faithful rise to their feet, remove their hats and pause for the pre-game prayer.
But in recent days the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s pre-game prayer has come under attack. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a cease and desist letter to the public university calling for them to abandon the long-time tradition.
“This is a public university, not a Christian club,” wrote Annie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF in a letter to the chancellor. “When you’re not religious or are of another faith and you get prayed at during events, it’s really very grating.”
“It’s a sock in the gut for you to go for a sporting event and then be told to conform to someone else’s religion,” she said in a story published by the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Chancellor Jimmy Cheek responded by saying the pre-game prayers are protected by the U.S. Constitution and will not be silenced on his campus.
“The university will continue to allow prayers before university events,” he wrote in a letter obtained by Fox News.
Cheek cited a court ruling from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that specifically held that “nonsectarian prayer at public university events does not violate the First Amendment.”
And furthermore, Cheek said prayers will also be welcomed at other university events – outside the confines of the football stadium.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that the FFRF sent their cease and desist letter on behalf of UT alumni and students who “felt disenfranchised by the prayers.”
“You roll your eyes and say why is this going on at a government-subsidized event?” retired ecologist and FFRF member Bob Craig told the newspaper. “I also see it at all the high school games where they have prayers before games and after games. It’s really out of place. It’s hurting all those people that don’t have that belief and ostracizing them.”
The university’s decision brought praise from Kevin Brooks, a Republican state representative.
“I was at the game on Saturday and actually commented on how thankful I was that we began the game in prayer and how much I enjoyed the halftime musical performance of Amazing Grace,” he told Fox News.
Brooks said it was alarming that an outside organization from Wisconsin would involve itself in the affairs of another state. There is no separation of church and state in the Constitution, he noted.
“I am so thankful that Tennesseans are going to stand up and say this is the Volunteer State and voluntarily we’re going to keep praying,” Brooks said.