Meet Me at the Fifty … and Bring Your Lawyer

It’s been said that in the South football is a religion. I know that’s true for me. On several Sabbath Saturdays each Fall, I worship at the First Church of Neyland in Knoxville. I also often attend Friday night services at a local high school football field.

The services at the First Church of Neyland and the Friday night lights revivals all begin with a prayer.

The pre-game invocation, as it is called, is usually delivered by a local preacher, who generally asks the Almighty to protect the players from injury in the upcoming game.

The Lord does not always answer these prayers, particularly when the athletes on one team are a lot bigger and faster than the athletes on the other. In that situation, God offers a lot less protection than a big blindside tackle.

The ministers who deliver the pre-game prayers refrain from asking God to help the home team win the game, as such is considered to be bad form. I am not sure why. In the post-game locker room shows, athletes on the winning team are always thanking God for their victory. If you can thank Him after a game for helping you win, what’s the harm in asking Him to help you win BEFORE the game? I always pray for my Vols before the Alabama game, although the Lord does not generally answer my prayer.

While I’m not a preacher and I don’t play one on TV, I do not believe that God does not care about the outcome of a football game. I’ve seen Notre Dame win too many games over the years to believe otherwise.

I also happen to believe that while God loves all His children, He particularly likes Les Miles.

But the traditional pre-game invocation is now being legally challenged on college campuses and high school football fields across America. The legal blitz is being led by some outfit called the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Not surprisingly, they are a bunch of atheist Yankees based in Madison, Wisconsin.

The “FFRF” has been threatening lawsuits all over the State of Tennessee to stop pre-game pigskin praying. They’ve already beaten the UT-Chattanooga Moccasins. Last year, the UTC Chancellor cancelled pre-game invocations at Moccasin football games in the face of legal threats from the FFRF.

But for now, the praying continues at the First Church of Neyland. With the help of the University’s legal counsel, UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek has blocked the FFRF’s offensive attack. Cheek referred the FFRF to the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Chaudburi v. State of Tennessee, which held that “nonsectarian prayer” at public university events does not violate the First Amendment.

If you’ve attended any of the worship services at the First Church of Neyland this season, you will note that in the pre-game invocation, the preacher does not direct the prayer to Jesus, Bear Bryant or any of the three members of the Holy Trinity. The prayer is simply addressed to a theologically-generic “Father” or “Creator.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if next season a pre-game prayer begins, “To Whom It May Concern!”

The FFRF has apparently realized that they may be no match for the Big Orange Legal Team and its deep pockets financed by 100,000 members of the First Church of Neyland, who pass the orange offering plate seven times a year. And so those Yankee atheists have dropped their legal game to the high school level, challenging local school districts. But once again, they’ve underestimated the competition.

In the face of cancellation of pre-game invocations at high schools across the state, students have taken matters of faith into their own hands … and bowed heads.

All across the Volunteer State, students have organized what they call “Meet Me at the Fifty.” Just before kick-off, students and anyone else who wishes to join them are invited to come down from the stands to the track alongside the high school football field and gather by the 50-yard line. And there, they engage in a brief voluntary prayer.

It’s become a big event under the Friday night lights from Memphis to Mountain City, and it has caught the FFRF completely off guard, so to speak.

I am confident that this legal battle is not over. On some future Friday night when the high school kids gather at the Fifty, they will probably be served with a gridiron injunction.
Next season, the pre-game battle cry will no doubt be, “Meet me at the Fifty … and bring your lawyer!”

Amen! And Go Vols!


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.