The chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point was exclusionary and on shaky legal ground in encouraging students to rely on "faith in God" during his official commencement "charge" to graduates at the public university, the Freedom From Religion Foundation said in a May 22 letter of complaint.
Chancellor Bernie Patterson told the approximately 1,425 graduates near the end of their May 17 ceremonies that when confronting an ethical dilemma at some point in their lives, they'll have to lean on their foundation — "That is, your education and your faith in God. Now go and be servant-leaders. Godspeed."
A graduate's family member brought the statement, which Patterson has made at other commencements, to FFRF's attention. FFRF, based in Madison, advocates for state-church separation and has 20,000 members nationwide and more than 1,300 in Wisconsin.
In FFRF's letter, Staff Attorney Sam Grover reminded Patterson that such remarks run counter to the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which mandates governmental neutrality toward religion.
"The Supreme Court said it best when it wrote that '[s]chool sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,’ ” Grover said.
He added, "Graduation should be an inclusive, unifying event designed to celebrate the accomplishments and prospects of the graduates. Including religious references does exactly the opposite, isolating non-Christian and nonreligious students, cheapening their participation by sending the message that they are outsiders at their own graduation and in their own community."
FFRF also reminded Patterson that he's free to promote his religious beliefs on his own time but not while acting in an official capacity at a secular institution.
"The university should be particularly sensitive to respecting the rights and conscience of the nonreligious, given that universities serve the least religious population in the country," Grover noted. "One in three college-aged Americans (ages 18-29) are not religious. We ask that you respect the rights and conscience of your entire student body by refraining from making religious remarks in your graduation speeches."