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Commencement ceremonies: Without a prayer

On June 24, 1992, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Lee v. Weisman, a case regarding a school principal who had invited a rabbi to deliver a prayer at the 1989 graduation ceremony of Nathan Bishop Middle School. The court’s 5-4 decision ruled that prayer had no place in public school graduation ceremonies, and such actions constituted indirect coercion of students.

But 17 years later, we are faced with a similar predicament on this campus. University President Dan Mote’s decision to overrule the University Senate by reinstating a prayer at the campus-wide commencement ceremony is part of a recurring trend that flies in the face of the principles that founded this country and the diversity preached by university officials.

While certainly no law has been broken, nor does Lee v. Weisman pertain to prayer at a public university, Mote and his supporters shouldn’t be so willing to ignore the lessons that can be learned from that case. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that it was unrealistic for those who wished not to partake in the prayer to simply not attend. “In our society and in our culture, high school graduation is one of life’s most significant occasions,” he wrote. College graduation is just as significant, and no one should feel forced to forfeit the reward for their hard work because of the pandering to the beliefs of many.

There may be a Christian majority, but that doesn’t mean the Muslim minority or the atheist minority or others should be discounted. Despite this fact, that seems to be exactly what is taking place today.

In the U.S. Senate, each session has been opened with a prayer for the past 207 years. It’s a tradition, but is it an appropriate tradition? What many fail to realize is values change, and thus traditions change. The invocation before each session of Congress may have been appropriate when Protestant, white, land-owning men controlled the government. However, that time has passed. We no longer live in a land of religious certitude.

The recently released American Religious Identification Study found that the number of Americans with no religious affiliation has risen from eight to 15 percent since 1990. Such dramatic numbers demonstrate that religion is not a guiding force for a growing number of Americans. This trend is reflected in the University Senate’s vote, in which not one student senator voted in favor of keeping the commencement prayer.

And those who say this is somehow one of the few traditions we have left are spewing pure nonsense. There was a time when it was a tradition to haze pledges in fraternities – that doesn’t make it right. The broader tradition is that of graduation, a moment where students who have worked hard to earn their degrees should feel proud, not shunned.

University officials have discussed receiving e-mails from across the state and even from state senators that contain “shocking language” regarding the University Senate’s decision, ultimately raising a larger question: Whose campus is this? Does it belong to grandstanding state senators like Sen. Andy Harris (R-Baltimore and Harford), who carp about the showing of pornography? Or to alumni who won’t even be at the commencement ceremony? To parents who wish to see their values reflected in their children?

Or does this campus belong to us?

Justin Snow is a sophomore history major. He can be reached at snowdbk@gmail.com.

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