Commencement Prayer Mars University Graduation By Chris Mooney (April 1999)

Last May at Midwestern State University, Texas, an evangelical Christian student named Mary King made a very strong case against graduation prayer. Interestingly, she did so not by argument, but by a display of holy rapture.

At the last minute, it fell to King to deliver MSU’s spring commencement benediction. She used this opportunity to ask God to forgive her fellow students for their sins: namely, spending their time earning a degree instead of devoting their lives to prayer and the pursuit of piety.

After demanding that her audience repent for their caps and gowns, not to mention any pride they might have been feeling at having received their BAs, for a grand finale Mary King collapsed, crying and gasping for air. University President Louis Rodriguez, concerned for King’s safety, called an ambulance.

As a result of the incident, the MSU Faculty Senate voted 8-7 to remove prayer from future commencements. Commenting in the Wichita Falls Times Record News, Faculty Senate chairman John Dowd remarked, “It didn’t really strike me until there was a very highly sectarian prayer last May . . . It kind of slammed me between the eyes.”

The Faculty Senate’s vote was overruled, however, by President Rodri guez, who remarked: “I believe that the culture of this area is such that this needs to be taken into consideration on this issue . . . This culture has a strong tradition of religious beliefs.” Accordingly, at winter commencement last December 19, student government President Gant Grimes delivered a less sectarian prayer.

An invocation to the “Lord” began the commencement, and a benediction concluded it, ending: “God bless you all and peace be with you. Amen.”

Clearly an improvement upon Mary King’s denunciation of her classmates, it would be inaccurate to call Grimes’s prayer “nonsectarian,” and naive to claim that it solves the problem that King’s tirade brought into deep relief. Grimes’s invocation and benediction explicitly endorse mono theism, to the exclusion of both polytheism and nontheism.

Thus this prayer, no less than that of Mary King, clearly enshrines and privileges a particular religious belief in a public university, and thus violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

MSU professor and former Methodist minister Gene Newton, com mented that “I think religion is a private matter, and we live in a multicultural nation where we have increasing ethnic and religious diversity. . . And for the state to essentially select a religion, I view it as the state–as represented by the university–as selecting an official religion.”

Newton added in a letter to Pres ident Rodriguez: “When the University sanctions prayer at graduation, students, their families, and faculty have no choice but to participate in a religious activity chosen by a state institution. . . I believe that is both wrong and unconstitutional.” Here it is important to note that despite his religious background Newton defends secularism, because of his awareness of and sensitivity to diversity.

Texas American Civil Liberties Union director Jay Jacobson observed that “What they are going to do now is water down a prayer so it is acceptable as the lowest common denomi nator. . . A government should never be involved in editing a prayer.”

According to the Supreme Court’s most prevalent interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establish ment Clause–an interpretation very much in harmony with the religious views of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, as any American historian knows–a graduation prayer in a public university has the effect of establishing a particular religion in that university, and thus violates the separation of church and state.

A strong tradition of religious beliefs is a private matter; a public university’s commencement ceremony is not. The two must be kept separate, which means that personal religious views should not be transposed from the private sphere to a public university.

Chris Mooney, Yale University ’99, is a member of the Campus Freethought Alliance.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a formal letter of complaint to MSU President Rodriguez last fall, asking that prayers be dropped from the state university’s commencements. The letter pointed out that prayers have been ended at many leading public universities, out of deference to pluralism, minority viewpoints and the constitutional separation of church and state.

Freedom From Religion Foundation