UTC group calls for response to prayer letter

The Secular Student Alliance at UTC on Friday advanced the debate about public prayer on the school's campus and in Hamilton County.

The group urged its members to contact UTC administrators after learning about a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation that challenges Christian prayers at university events such as football games.

"This is definitely an issue where religious minorities feel excluded because of the explicitly and only Christian nature of these prayers," said Bryan Barkley, a 23-year-old University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior and a founding member of the Secular Student Alliance. "We encourage anyone to call and just let them know how they feel."

The Chattanooga Times Free Press first reported on Friday that UTC administrators received a letter in May from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The letter specifically mentions prayers held by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at football games beginning in 2010.

Jay Fowler, local director of the fellowship, said the university has asked the group to lead prayers in the past.

"We've never pushed that or to do that," Fowler said. "We're very thankful that we've had that opportunity. If the university continues to ask us to do [the prayers], we will be happy to."

UTC Associate Vice Chancellor Chuck Cantrell confirmed Friday that university officials have not taken any additional steps after receiving the letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"We have received their request, and we are taking [it] under consideration," Cantrell said.

The issue of prayers at government meetings is rippling through the county.

The Hamilton County Commission is embroiled in a lawsuit over the use of Christian prayers to open its weekly meetings. The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a separate letter in May to Hamilton County commissioners, asking them to stop holding Christian prayers.

Commissioners continued to hold their prayers, and two residents filed a federal lawsuit seeking to stop them in June. A major order on a motion for preliminary injunction in that case is expected soon.

On Thursday, the Hamilton County Election Commission held a moment of silence instead of its usual invocation.

Election Commissioner Jerry Summers said the panel doesn't want to get tangled up in the lawsuit against the commission.

"We don't need to be brought into it," he said. "To keep us from getting into more trouble, we need to have a moment of silence."

Summers said he doesn't personally oppose prayer, but he's just "trying to save the taxpayers' money."

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