One of the nation’s biggest college football programs is fighting a secular group over demands to stop a prayer that mentions Jesus Christ before home games, in a story that could have wider implications.
The battle between the publicly funded University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the Freedom From Religion Foundation wasn’t on the Volunteers’ fall schedule, but it is the talk of the town this week after the school said it was within its constitutional rights to have a crowd prayer before games.
The program is one of the most famous in college football, and its games are at the massive Neyland Stadium, which seats 102,000 fans.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation decided to tackle the prayer issue–and the football giant–after it said some alumni complained about the tradition, and were upset that the name of Jesus Christ was used during the prayers.
“Our complaint informed us that an announcer asked 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 invoke Jesus Christ,” the group said in a letter to the school.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation also cited several Supreme Court rulings in the letter and used a passage from Matthew to tell the school to halt the prayer immediately.
“It is a fundamental constitutional principle that publicly funded institutions cannot support, promote or otherwise endorse religion or engage in religious exercises,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation said.
The group cited the historic Santa Fe vs. Jane Doe decision in 2000, that barred prayers at high school football games; the County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union case from 1989 (which barred nativity scenes from a courthouse); and Abington vs. Schempp from 1963 (which halted the reading of Bible passages in public schools).
The University of Tennessee at Knoxville said it hasn’t made a final decision yet, but it asserted the prayer was within its rights, and it was preparing a legal response.
The school doesn’t apparently agree with the Freedom From Religion Foundation about a 1997 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that on prayers at public universities.
In Chaudhuri v. State of Tennessee, the court found that nonsectarian prayers or moments of silence at a Tennessee State University graduation ceremony were allowed under the First Amendment.
Dr. Dilip K. Chaudhuri sued Tennessee State, claiming that the school violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion․”
Tennessee State changed its policy to only use moments of silence, but Chaudhuri sued again, claiming that the school’s “intent behind the change was to allow the continuation of prayers.”
The district court ruled in favor of Tennessee State and the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t hear an appeal of the case.
Earlier this month, another school in the state system, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said it would use a moment of silence at games, in response to a similar complaint from the foundation.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has also complained about several Tennessee high school teams offering prayers before games and is in a battle with a Tennessee high school that allows a local church to serve free meals to football players before a game.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press says Ridgeland High School claims it isn’t violating the First Amendment by allowing the church to feed the students.
An attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Andrew Seidel, told the Free Press that the school couldn’t transport the players to a church.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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