It’s normally prudent to leave these discussions to those trained in the finer points of faiths and religion. Preachers. Rabbis. Theologians. Professors. But what a week it has been.
In Knoxville, where they’re trying to relearn how to play the game, the University of Tennessee has fended off a volley from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates just that — freedom from religion. The foundation believes that public prayer before UT football games is unconstitutional and sent a letter to the university requesting that it put a stop to it.
The university had a response, which said: “Nonsectarian prayer at public university events does not violate the First Amendment.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president, disagreed. “They’ve been praying to Jesus and inviting clergy to come lead the prayer,” she told the Associated Press. “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.”
Tough, UT says.
The prayers will continue.
Of course, Gaylor has a point. Prayers to Jesus before Vol football games seem anything but “nonsectarian,” so the university’s decision to describe their prayers in that manner seems a bit incorrect. Prayers to Jesus are explicitly Christian. Followers of religions that don’t view Jesus in the same light as Christians do would surely agree. And, though it may sound a bit crass, UT isn’t putting prayers to pagan divinities or Greek gods over its PA.
They’re Christian prayers.
So Gaylor wins that debate point, minor or not. (Her organization did record victory elsewhere in Tennessee recently when it convinced UT-Chattanooga to do what the University of Tennessee will not. UTC now offers moments of silence, not minister-led prayers, before its games because, as its spokesman 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.”)
For comparison’s sake, Jacksonville State University — a school squarely in the Bible Belt, just like UT and UTC — does not put minister-led prayers on the PA before its games, JSU spokesman Greg Seitz told me, though the school will have moments of silence before games on special occasions such as the 9/11 anniversary or in response to deaths of noteworthy people. That seems a wise and measured compromise.
Separation of church and state issues exist for genuine, legitimate purposes. Critics want to make it an issue of partisan politics and the perceived evils of political correctness, but it’s more about fairness to all. As a Christian, I’m not offended by the prayers, but we are a nation of diverse people with assorted beliefs that often do not mesh. Most of America’s religious say they subscribe to Christian faiths, particularly here in the South, but there are American Jews and American Muslims and American Sikhs and, yes, American atheists. There is no state-sponsored religion. That’s what makes these discussions so tricky, so emotional, so combative and, yet, so important.
As for Jesus possibly having a wife, well, that’s where those trained in the finer points of religions and faith should chime in. I’ll leave that for them.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.