The University of Tennessee has decided to continue its tradition of opening home football games and other events with prayer despite complaints from a national atheist group, which claims it violates the separation of church and state.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation had written to UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, insisting the offering of prayers violated a 1997 U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision – Chaudhuri vs. State of Tennessee – that struck down sectarian prayers at public universities. However, Cheek announced that "the university will continue to allow prayers before university events."
"Public universities should respect, not squelch, the religious traditions of students. We applaud the University of Tennessee for continuing prayers at events, including football games," Alliance Defending Freedom Litigation Staff Travis Barham said in a statement on Friday.
In his response to the foundation's complaint, Cheek said on Wednesday he appreciated their concern about the issue, and had given it careful consideration. "At this time, however, the university will continue to allow prayers before university events consistent with the Chaudhuri case."
Federal courts have repeatedly recognized that the Establishment Clause does not require universities to purge their events of all things religious, Barham added. "The chancellor was right to align with the 6th Circuit which recognized that '[t]he people of the United States did not adopt the Bill of Rights to strip the public square of every last shred of public piety.'"
The foundation has said it will not sue the university. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation and author of the initial complaint letter, stated that the organization would not sue, but even vague prayers can be offensive to nonreligious people. "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."
Federal courts of appeals have unanimously upheld even clergy-led prayers at university events as consistent with the Establishment Clause, Barham said in a letter to Cheek. "Increasingly, federal courts have also rejected FFRF's effort to purge public ceremonies of all things religious by inventing a distinction between 'sectarian' and 'nonsectarian' prayers."
"Nothing in the Constitution prohibits these prayers, and a veritable chorus of Supreme Court cases prohibits the University from banning speech simply because some might find it offensive," Barham added. "It is both lawful and wise for University officials to respect and cherish our religious heritage and to allow the invocation of God's protection and blessing on their players and fans."
This football season, the university has scheduled Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders to offer the invocation before home football games at Neyland Stadium.