UTennessee officials: Prayers don't violate Constitution

Wednesday , September 19, 2012 - 5:07 PM

Steve Megargee

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.— The University of Tennessee plans to continue allowing pregame prayers at Neyland Stadium after receiving a letter from an organization arguing that the practice is unconstitutional.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek asking that the university stop the use of prayer at university functions and sporting events. Cheek released a letter Wednesday in which he said he had discussed the matter with the school’s counsel and was told that "nonsectarian prayer at public university events does not violate the First Amendment."

Cheek told the Wisconsin-based atheist group that he had given the issue "careful consideration" but that the school would continue to allow prayers before university events.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, the Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president, said the use of the word "nonsectarian" indicates that Tennessee shouldn’t have a clergyman conducting prayers with overt Christian references.

"They’ve been praying to Jesus and inviting clergy to come lead the prayer," Gaylor said. "Nonsectarian would be (that) you wouldn’t have a member of the clergy who’s tied to a denomination, so they’re not going to talk about Jesus. They shouldn’t be talking about the Bible. In my opinion, they shouldn’t be praying at all."

Gaylor added that she would encourage students upset with the university’s decision to remain active about the issue.

UT-Chattanooga decided last week to stop its use of a pregame prayer after receiving a similar letter. The public address announcer instead invites the crowd before the national anthem to observe a moment of silence "in consideration of the safety of today’s players, the service of those who protect us at home and abroad and the needs of those who suffer."

"We didn’t want our events to be something that anyone felt excluded from," UT-Chattanooga spokesman Chuck Cantrell said. "We recognize that we have a diverse community here in Chattanooga and especially on campus, and we just didn’t want to be doing anything that made any of our guests feel unwelcome. We felt a moment of silence offered equality and parity for everybody."

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