As a University of Florida alum and Gator football fan, the Tennessee game has long been one of my favorite weeks of the football season.
Because it’s usually been one of our first SEC games, it presents an early opportunity to take stock of our team, see how good we really are, and take a big step in the eastern division race. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the rivalry often had national title implications and featured such legends as Danny Wuerffel, Peyton Manning, Fred Taylor, Jamal Lewis, and countless others who had stellar college careers and went on to the NFL.
Lately, it hasn’t been much of a rivalry, with the Gators having the Vols’ number — for 9 straight years, to be precise. And yet, even winning against Tennessee comes at a hefty price: you still have to listen to “Rocky Top” play ad nauseam all day long.
All trash talk aside, one other thing I will look forward to about this weekend’s game is knowing that our hosts have continued their courageous stand against those who wish to drive prayer out of the public square, in this case the famed Neyland Stadium.
Earlier this season, the university rejected the demands of anti-religion interest groups to stop Tennessee’s tradition of observing a moment of non-denominational prayer praying before kickoff. The group went so far as to refer to this tradition of pre-game prayer as “really very grating”.
Such attacks on religion and prayer in the public square are not new. For example, earlier this year, an anti-religion group went after Clemson University and its football coach Dabo Swinney.
Another instance was a case involving prayer in legislative bodies, which ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court. I filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending this practice, which dates back to the Founding Fathers of our nation, because it has been an enduring, living symbol of the religious freedom America stands for. It’s a freedom to pray that we are called to protect in our city councils, statehouses and Congress.
Those who attack public prayer – whether it occurs at schools, in legislatures or football stadiums – all have in common a dream of moving toward a “naked public square”. Their goals and tactics aim to make religion stigmatized, feared and something best kept private. Fortunately, however, America’s long-standing tradition of welcoming prayers in public settings have been defended by the vast majority of Americans, protected by law and upheld by several court decisions.
So as we get ready for this weekend’s Florida-Tennessee game, Gator fans like me will at least rejoice in knowing that, although we can’t do anything about silencing the Tennessee marching band from playing “Rocky Top” (over and over and over again), the vast majority of Gator and Volunteer fans alike stand together for at least a couple of things: 1) in knowing the SEC is the king of college football, and 2) for our right to pray together before kickoff and give thanks for all our blessings.