This was an article written for the the newspaper over at my Alma Mater yesterday. It sparked some good discussion and I felt it was well written so I wanted to share it here.
By STEPHEN JOINER on December 13, 2011
Every day, it seems, we hear politicians refer to the Constitution, a document erected over 200 years ago. It’s hard to believe that something so old could have any bearing on modern issues, but the Constitution has stood the test of time due, in no small part, to its internal flexibility.
For American citizens, the Bill of Rights is arguably the most important section of the Constitution, as it guarantees us certain natural rights that we frequently take for granted.
And The First Amendment has always been a favorite of mine, simply because of the vast amounts of those rights outlined within it. This includes the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and — lest we forget — religion.
Regarding the last of those rights, the Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
As a member of the UGAtheists, a student-run organization at the University, I find it important to defend the freedom of religion at any University-sponsored event, which comes into question every year at University commencement ceremonies.
For graduating students, Commencement may be one of the most important days of their lives — their first day as a true adult. As the first student to receive a degree in computer systems engineering from UGA, I, too, will accept a great honor from my school, whose name I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
But if this semester’s Commencement is like every other in University history, the freedom of religion will be violated. The ceremony will begin with a religious invocation by some figure, likely a preacher, priest, Rabbi or Imam. It will involve a prayer that traditionally references “God” or “Almighty Father” and ends with “Amen.”
It is sectarian in the sense that it does not endorse a specific sect of any religion, but it clearly exhibits a preference for theism — the belief in at least one god — over any other belief system.
Under the Freedom of Speech, it seems at first logical that a school should be allowed to have whatever sort of motivational speaker it desires to begin the ceremony. This is a common misconception.
Though the Separation of Church and State is not mentioned in those terms in the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson later clarified what he meant by the Establishment Clause in a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802.
He wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
What does the “separation of church and state” mean, exactly? Once again, Jefferson eloquently explained it: “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.”
Our government has the ability to govern us, but not to coerce us in any matter of personal belief, including religious ones. Over time, the Establishment Clause has been understood to not only apply to Congress, but to every government entity in our country.
When a state-sponsored institution like the University holds a prayer, the law is being broken. If you are witness to a graduation where a prayer is held, your civil rights are being infringed upon — whether or not it disturbs you.
Though some students couldn’t image a ceremony without the invocation of supernatural blessings, it is important to realize the government simply isn’t allowed to do that.
In Doe v. Santa Fe (1999), the Courts ruled that, “The deliverance of prayers alter dramatically the tenor of the ceremony, shifting its focus … away from the students and the secular purpose of the graduation ceremony to the religious content of the speaker’s prayers.” This is exactly what we see at UGA every time Commencement is held.
Prayer at high school graduations is now completely forbidden in our country, but the University system has been getting away with it under the claim that audiences over the age of 18 are not impressionable enough for government-endorsed religion to have a lasting effect on their beliefs. It is this double standard that I have sought to challenge both at UGA and nationwide.
If religion is a part of your life, nobody can change that. But government bodies, including the University, do not have the same freedom.
The only legal commencement ceremony the University can offer is one without any reference to deities or the supernatural. To do otherwise is to violate the laws our Founding Fathers so courageously fought for all those years ago.
And as a patriot who loves my country, I cannot stand by idly while my rights and the rights of my fellow Americans are so thoughtlessly brushed aside.
— Stephen Joiner is a senior from Lawrenceville majoring in computer systems engineering
So what does everyone think? Should we leave college graduation ceremonies to tradition or is it against the law to have prayer?