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People that know me know that there are few things in this world that I love to discuss more than sports and religion. It’s not often that these two topics converge, but when they do I relish the opportunity to give my opinion on both.
Several news outlets, including Yahoo! Sports and Fox News, reported on Wednesday that the University of Tennessee’s chancellor asserted that pregame prayers at its football games and other sporting events weren’t unconstitutional and would be continued after being prompted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to discontinue the practice. Among other things, the letter from FRFF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor stated that the prayers by clergymen, many of which invoke the name of Jesus Christ, “are sectarian in nature” and are in violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” She states that Tennessee’s “encouraging or endorsing [a] religious ritual” such as prayer is an example of the institution “lend[ing] its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement of religion that excludes the 15% of the U.S. adult population that is nonreligious.” In her opinion, the prayers at Tennessee “include sectarian or proselytizing devotions, such as praying in the name of Jesus Christ.”
I’ve got a million problems with this situation, not all of which I have the time to get into. So I’ll just hit the highlights.
- This organization is from Wisconsin and is meddling in the business of the flagship university of Tennessee. The political, social, and religious climates are extremely different in these two areas of the country. The letter states that the FRFF was contacted by a Tennessee alum about the prayers. One alum. One. Is this really a big enough deal to raise a stink, upset social balance, and anger the tens of thousands of Tennessee alumni, fans, and supporters that this story has reached? You be the judge.
- Gaylor said in an story published by the Knoxville News Sentinel that the nonreligious fans in attendance were “getting prayed at during events” and that “it’s a sock in the gut…to go to a sporting event and then be told to conform to someone else’s religion.” I’m really not sure how a prayer thanking Jesus for the contributions both competing institutions have made to the world at large and asking for world peace and player and fan safety during the game (as is the custom for most invocations at college sporting events) constitutes being “prayed at” or being “told to conform to someone else’s religion.” Maybe that’s uncomfortable. I could understand if the clergymen embedded subtle phraseology in their prayers that encouraged conversion to Christianity. But it really seems blown way out of proportion.
- It’s hard to convince me that praying at a football game, especially in the Deep South, constitutes governmental endorsement of religion. This isn’t a sport finance article, but absolutely $0 of Tennessee’s athletics budget comes from state appropriations. Meaning no taxpayers are footing the bill for a dime of Tennessee’s athletics expenditures. But I’ll even play their game for a minute, saying that since the athletics department is affiliated with the university as a whole, everything that happens in an athletics context is endorsed by the university, which is funded in part by taxpayer dollars. I’ll admit, I can’t find the percentage of Tennessee’s budget comes from state appropriations. But I can tell you at South Carolina that figure is less than 10% from the state, and, to my knowledge, 0% from the federal government. Assuming Tennessee is in a similar situation, the prayers would at best constitute a state endorsement of prayer/religion, not a federal one, which is what the Establishment Clause applies to.
But perhaps the most maddening part about all of this is the hypocrisy on the part of the FRFF. Organizations like this preach tolerance and acceptance, saying that members of society feel marginalized when their personal beliefs come under attack in situations like this. But this is not what they practice. They don’t seek freedom from religion, they seek freedom from the Christian religion by personally attacking Christians’ beliefs and practices, such as prayer or Jesus being the only means of salvation. The nature of tolerance is to accept all people’s viewpoints as legitimate and to refrain from trying to convert or convince them otherwise. Maybe they’ve convinced themselves that that’s what they’re actually doing here. But beneath the surface, they harbor at best annoyance and at worst seething hatred towards Christianity because they view the people practicing it as intolerant. They fail to see that the very tolerance they preach isn’t extended to those in the majority, who are seen as conniving zealots that haven’t yet seen the glorious illumination of enlightenment.
I concede that my viewpoint is a bit biased. But I hope the logic is still sound. It will be interesting to see if anything more comes from this, and whether other institutions that pray before athletic events, including South Carolina, will feel the repercussions.
Photo Credit: Knoxville News Sentinel