Student Activist Awards

Strong Backbone Student Activist Award, Removing prayer from graduation: By Sarah Barrios – 2016

FFRF awarded Sarah $1,000 from a fund endowed by an octogenarian member who wishes to remain anonymous.

By Sarah Barrios

Nicholls State University has a long-standing history of subjecting its graduating seniors to either a Catholic or Southern Protestant commencement prayer at the graduation ceremony.

I understand that we live in a highly Christian area, as on our campus alone there are two churches, with many more just down the road. Christians are certainly the majority. However, rights should not just belong to those in the majority.

So, after a meeting with the Secular Student Alliance on campus, I decided to write a letter to our university president asking him to either "remove Christian prayer from commencement exercises at Nicholls State University altogether, or open the exercises to a broader range of religious denominations." My suggestion was that a moment of silence would be best, as it would give everyone time to reflect and be thankful.

The letter also pointed out that commencement at many universities is an entirely secular celebration and that we did not feel that ours was enhanced by adding a religious component. I expressed that exposing students to a religious exercise that only included members of Christian belief would be unfair and disrespectful. The letter closed by stating the following: "We feel that such an action, regardless of its intent, is disrespectful to any students and faculty. Clearly, commencement should be a time when all students can celebrate their shared academic accomplishments with full respect of all beliefs and life stances. It seems clear to us that all in attendance can be fully respected only when all feel that they are fully a part of the celebration."

Due to the demographic majority of Christians in this area, I fully expected my letter to be brushed off and ignored.

Surprisingly, I received a letter only a few weeks later from the president's office informing me that they were putting a plan in place to remove the Christian benedictions from the graduation ceremony. The letter stated: "The inclusion of a religious toned invocation and benediction was never intended to exclude members of our community but to bring a matter of solemnity to the occasion. However, your point has been considered and we will take steps to incorporate a moment of silent reflection instead of an invocation in the commencement program."

I was not expecting success so quickly, but I commend Nicholls State for listening to its students and considering their views and beliefs.

However, I was worried that this change may not be permanent. I have heard that some faculty members are very upset about prayer being removed from the graduation ceremony, and that efforts are under way in an attempt to overturn our president's decision.

After hearing this, I jumped on our group's Facebook page right away, urging people to think about their fellow student by saying the following: "Let us keep in mind why we made this request in the first place. Nicholls is a place that many students call home. These students come from a variety of backgrounds: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, pagan and nonreligious. For only one of those to have representation at graduation (an event whose purpose is to celebrate the academic achievements of every graduate, no matter where they've come from or where they've been) is extremely disrespectful to our fellow students who may believe something different, or not believe in anything at all.

"Students at Nicholls all pay the same tuition. We all endure many of the same struggles. We all deserve the same representation. Let us not be divided by this, but instead stand together as one student body, believing in and hoping for a better tomorrow. Together."

Since then, I have not heard about any success from those trying to overturn the university president's decision. If it comes to a vote, I truly hope that our student body would choose to vote for what would unite us rather that what would divide us. However, I am fully prepared to fight for the less represented on campus. We are all entitled to live in a world free from persecution. I believe this should especially be true for an academic institution. That's why I fight. That's why I'm a student activist.

Sarah Barrios is a senior at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La, where she is completing her degree in biology. She runs the Nicholls chapter of the Secular Student Alliance as its co-founder and president. Other interests of hers include "music, art, politics, and daydreaming about saving our rapidly disappearing coastline."

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