5/8/09

No Separation of Church and State at Mississippi Universities

USM GraduatesImage by wonderfully complex via Flickr

I work at a state (i.e., publicly funded) university in Mississippi. As a function of my job, I am expected to attend at least one graduation ceremony a year (sometimes two) in order to hood doctoral candidates. In fact, I did so today and am writing this with the experience fresh in my mind. Like each previous graduation ceremony I have attended at this university, sectarian prayers were prominently featured in today's ceremony. This is unacceptable, and I am no longer content to simply ignore the matter.

I would like to make three points here. First, prayer has no place at a university-sanctioned event of any kind when the university involved is a public university supported with tax dollars. Second, I'd like to be sure that everyone understands the meaning and significance of "sectarian" in this context. Third, I'd like to briefly address the impact of sectarian prayer on persons of other faiths and no faith at all.

Prayer Has No Place at the Graduation Ceremonies of a Public University

Official (i.e., a member of the clergy addresses the audience over the PA system) prayer at a university-sanctioned event at a public university is a violation of church-state separation. Institutions that receive public funding are not supposed to elevate particular religions to preferred status.

This is precisely what has been happening. Only Christian clergy are invited, prayers are sectarian (see below), the prayers are written into the schedule printed in the bulletin (i.e., nothing spontaneous about this).

I suspect that this is illegal. If I am wrong, then I would at least hope that a secular institution of higher learning would wish to lead by example by avoiding the appearance of illegality in such a high-profile event. I would also hope that a public university would have a bit more concern for how its activities affect others (see below).

What is Sectarian Prayer?

A sectarian prayer is one that makes explicit reference to a particular religion or sect. In both of the two prayers delivered today, for example, the phrase "in Jesus' name was incorporated. This is sectarian in that in explicitly references Christianity. Members of non-Christian faith communities (e.g., Jews, Muslims, etc.) were deliberately excluded. These prayers were not offered with them in mind.

A common way which institutions claim to avoid church-state issues is through offering the sort of prayers that do not reference any specific sects or religions. For example, simply omitting mention of Jesus in today's prayers would have rendered them non-sectarian and allowed persons of other faith traditions to be included. Of course, atheists would have still been excluded.

Assessing the Impact

No, this is not the place where I talk about how much it pisses me off to have to sit through this bullshit. Instead, I want us to consider the impact of sectarian prayer on the non-Christian faculty, staff, students, parents and other relatives, and friends of the graduates in attendance. What must go through their minds the moment the Jesus references appear? Some may be offended, but how many others simply feel excluded? Is this really what one hopes to accomplish in a graduation ceremony? I think not.

Imagine the international student from a non-Christian faith tradition who has come to the United States to earn a degree, has now completed the degree, and is hoping to celebrate this great accomplishment. Is it really necessary to shove his or her face in Jesus as part of the official ceremony? What good can possibly come from this?

Yes, I am fully aware that the majority in attendance at any graduate ceremony in Mississippi will inevitably be not just Christian but also Southern Baptist. I get that. But I cannot and will not accept that the only way to be respectful to them requires the university to explicitly exclude everyone else.