UTC officials' decision to end the practice of offering a public prayer before football games and replace it with a moment of silence is correct, even if it angers some individuals and community groups who wrongly interpret the First Amendment. The new policy, announced Monday by Chancellor Roger Brown, is effective immediately. The moment of silence will be observed Thursday at the Mocs' home opener against Glenville State at Finley Stadium.
UTC and Brown no doubt have received calls complaining about the policy. The number of complaints and the volume at which they are delivered doesn't matter, though. Compliance with the law does.
UTC's ruling does not prevent an individual from praying or otherwise exercising his or her religious freedom, as many complainants argue. Rather, it upholds and honors constitutional principles and government neutrality toward religion.
Ending prayers at UTC football games neither undermines those principals nor encroaches on individual freedom. It does sustain well-established laws and legal precedents that say schools and school-sponsored groups cannot promote a religious message or officially endorse religious beliefs. That typically occurs at UTC and elsewhere when a prayer is offered, for example, "in Jesus' name."
Those who rail against the public prayer ban at UTC are shortsighted. They overlook the fact that a public university serves a diverse population -- predominantly Christian to be sure, but with Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheist students as well. UTC is funded by all taxpayers and therefore should be free of any school-approved religious activity. Those opposed to the new policy conveniently overlook, as well, the fact that they can still pray as they choose at the game or anywhere else -- as long as it is not officially sanctioned prayer.
Brown's ruling was prompted by a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation asking that UTC halt the game-day, public prayer. Officials reacted properly to the request. Their reasoning is sound.
"We need to make sure there is never anybody that goes away from our campus, our stadium, our arena or classroom or work, that feels like the have been excluded or feel uncomfortable in any way," Brown said.
He added that an announcement prior to the moment of silence will ask those in attendance to "think about many of the things we all hold dear in our hearts and minds," including men and women in military service overseas and those less fortunate. Those who routinely pray and those who don't surely can agree to honor that request.
Brown's order to end the game-day prayer is appropriate. As established by the First Amendment, religion is private and should be free of government control or influence. Promotion or support of prayer at a public university usually favors the majority's religion, leaving those with other beliefs -- or none at all -- feeling left out. Putting an end to the practice at UTC is the right thing to do.