How Do You Stop a Graduation Prayer at a Public University?

When the University of Georgia in Athens holds its graduations (about three a year), they have someone recite a prayer at the ceremony. It’s always a “sectarian” prayer that leans Christian — kind of like all those “non-denominational” prayers people recite before so many city council meetings…

The UGAtheists are trying to put a stop to that. They’d rather see a secular observation that is far more inclusive than what they currently hear.

Already, though, they’ve hit a standstill.

They sent a letter to the Commencement Planning Committee and received this response from them (click to enlarge):

Basically, the committee says, “We don’t mention Jesus so we’re not doing anything wrong.” Referring to a higher power? Doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Here’s a sample graduation prayer (PDF) from 2009 — one that they feel is perfectly appropriate for everyone:

Oh God, on this beautiful spring day we gather to honor these who have completed their degrees, and who will soon embark on the next stage of life’s journey.

We are thankful for the University of Georgia, the administrators led by Dr. Adams and the faculty who have mentored and taught these graduates during their education.

We are thankful for the family and friends gathered here today in support of these graduates.

This afternoon we reflect back with thanks on the lessons learned while at this remarkable institution:

We offer thanks for the many professors who have not only taught information, but also a love for learning, both in and out of the classroom.

We offer thanks for our colleagues who not only made pursuing further education fun, but also helped to mold these graduates into the scholars they have become.

As poetically stated in our alma mater, this morning these graduates

“Take their rightful place
Side by side into the future
Equal dreams embrace”

As these men and women pursue their dreams, may each continue to seek knowledge, pursue truth, and have a desire for justice for all people.

Temper all of their pursuits with love and compassion.

God give these graduates a global perspective. May their sights be set not only on advancing their own needs and desires, but the needs of all peoples with whom we share this ever-shrinking planet.

In these uncertain economic times, we ask for your guidance, Oh God, as these men and women continue or begin careers. May their places of employment be such that their gifts are appreciated and nurtured, so that each will thrive and bloom to his or her fullest potential!

God, as these men and women leave this place as alumni, guide and protect them, and keep them safe for many good days ahead. Bring them back to this hallowed ground of learning in future days to celebrate the long and healthy journey that began here.

God bless these graduates, and God bless the University of Georgia. Amen.

Why on earth would any atheists have a problem with that…? Who knows…

Question to readers: Is there anything the UGA atheist group can do from here? If legal options are not available, what would be the proper response?

While the UGAtheists figure out their next steps, you can support them by Liking their “Stop Pray At UGA Graduation” Facebook page.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Anonymous

    And what about atheistic Buddhists?

    “Non-denominational” prayer is nonsense. It’s all about not pitting one Christian sect against another. And to some extent it also works for most other big religions. But it still requires a shared belief in the supernatural

  • http://www.facebook.com/eukota Darrell Ross

    Alas but their “Facebook page” is actually a “Facebook group” which I can ask to join. Not only that but they are an “Open group” which means that everyone can see who is in the group. Anyone who tries to keep their support for secular ideals in-the-closet will not be joining the group as anyone could see they were a part of it.

    They might get more support if it were a page which requires less commitment on the part of a supporter. The supporter can click “like” and just hide the fact they liked it from their viewers.

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephenjoiner Stephen Joiner

      Thanks for the advice, I’ll do that now!

  • http://twitter.com/postshaggy Life Post-Shaggy

    What’s ridiculous is that if they just remove the word “God,” and change a few small clauses, the whole thing actually makes for a really nice statement to give graduates.

    But it’s a battle not for the actual message, but for the pride of people who throw the magicks around.

    • Anonymous

      The references and giving thanks to god in every sentence actually cheapen the whole thing and distract from the message

      • Rich Wilson

        How about a reading of Oh the Places You’ll Go!

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

          +1 for the Dr. Seuss. Plus, that particular book, would be highly appropriate for a graduation, because it’s about, like, life, and stuff, and how you can go anywhere with your life.

  • Anonymous

    So if it is not addressed to a deity, is it really a prayer?  

    • Anonymous

      They can call it an invocation, which really just means “pseudo-prayer”

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephenjoiner Stephen Joiner

      It ends in “amen”. Pretty cut and dry to me.

  • Anonymous

    WTF?!?  The first words in that prayer are “Oh God”, and it is not a religious invocation?!?

    Sheesh – you’d think folks at a real university would be educated.

    • Rich Wilson

      They’re inclusive of both kinds of Baptists.

    • Annie

      Who cares that they mention God.  I’m more considered that their scientists released news that the earth is shrinking!

      Oh- and the fact that the letter mentions that the prayer is OK because college is not mandatory is ridiculous!

      • Annie

        Concerned, not considered.  I should start reading over these comments before sending…

  • Denis Robert

    Well, one could shout “Allah”, or “Flying Spaghetti Monster” every time the word “God” is uttered. “God” with a capital G, and without a definite article, has always been interpreted to refer to the Christian God and no other (except perhaps the Jewish god, which Christians mistakenly believe is the same as theirs). So it’s sectarian by definition. If they had said “a god”, they might have more of a case to make. But “God”? without a “a”? No way, Jose.

  • Abram Larson

    Anytime you hear the argument from “heritage” or “tradition”, you can pretty much rest assured its going to be really craptastic. Those two words are on my red flag list right beside “states rights” and “mainstream media.”

    Agree that non-sectarian in this instance is really means “does not favor one religious denomination.” A classic example of religious privilege completely ignoring non-believers.

    At my graduation we had a really great speaker who pretty much made the same speach, but didn’t evoke a deity. It’s possible to wish and hope that people have a bright and shiny future without pleading for a deity to make it happen.

  • guest

    yeah, that’s not non-denominational. “Amen” is as far as I know a pretty distinct Christian clause.How about they let an atheist lead the non-denominational  meditation?

    • Anonymous

      “non-denominational” only means that it doesn’t favor one Christian sect over another. Or it refers to a church that isn’t officially affiliated with a specific sect. It isn’t supposed to be inclusive of other religions altogether, let alone non-believers

  • Jonfacemire

    http://www.diamondbackonline.com/2.2792/letters-to-the-editor-1.277104

    Above is the link to a letter to the editor I wrote in 2009 arguing against a prayer at my college graduation at the University of Maryland. I would write back and cite the Engele vs Vitale case. UGA is a state school so this case provides a fairly strong basis for arguing against the prayer. You can also check out Wallace v. Jaffree and Santa Fe ISD v. Doe.

    • ACN

      Jon, did you get any response back?

      I’m a grad student who just attended his brother’s undergrad graduation last year, and I was quite surprised by the religious ‘invocation’. UMD is a secular school, and public prayer shouldn’t be any part of the graduation ceremony.

      A number of my grad student friends want to badger the school about this for a few years before we have to graduate, and it would be useful to know if any officials responded to your letter in the diamondback.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephenjoiner Stephen Joiner

    Thanks everyone for your support! The Facebook fan page is here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/11/09/how-do-you-stop-a-graduation-prayer-at-a-public-university/

    • Drew M.

      You linked back to this blog entry. :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/stephenjoiner Stephen Joiner

        Fixed.

  • Saad Khan

    Glad to see this getting some attention. This is something that seems like a blatantly obvious breach of the first amendment, and I’m actually surprised that the administration doesn’t see that (though they probably do and just choose to ignore it).

  • Anonymous

    They could not participate.  Silent, non violent protest has a wonderful and reasonably successful.  You do need mass support though and a clear issue to oppose and actions that should be taken in opposition.  If the graduation prayer involves standing and joining in the prayer then sit silently throughout it.  Sit together in a group (so that you’ll get noticed) and let people know in advance that this is your intended action

    You are saying “there is nothing I can do to stop you insulting me with your prayer but in no way am I going to support it.”  Once the actual graduation begins you should obviously be as supportive of the graduates as the rest of the school if not more supportive.  It isn’t about disrupting the praise that students deserve but about refusing to be bullied by theists demanding their privilege.

    • Saad Khan

      The way I understand it, the person leading the prayer just goes right into it while everyone’s seated. Not participating really wouldn’t look any different than participating (unless someone’s checking for who’s bowing their head).

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        If the whole audience is sitting during the invocation, then perhaps those who want to show that they’re not participating could stand up and turn around, putting their backs to the speaker while he’s talking to the Spook.  Then they could sit down again, and participate in the rest of the ceremony.

        • Anonymous

          Exactly.  Do something to stand out and make your objections known without being a dick.

          • http://www.facebook.com/stephenjoiner Stephen Joiner

            I’d rather be a dick than break the law. I want every student to have a megaphone and shout “separate church and state!” It rhymes.

            • Michael Appleman

              Or maybe chant the bible verse that talks about not praying in public.

        • ACN

          I like this idea very much Richard.

        • Saad Khan

          That would definitely make a point. Hopefully we can get this thing revoked without having to resort to that. It seems like a pretty cut and dry case so if we just hint at the possibility of legal action they might be more flexible on it.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    Send that prayer back to the administration after replacing every mention of “God” with “Allah” and ask if they still think it’s non-sectarian. Maybe send two more versions, one with “God” replaced by “Flying Spaghetti Monster” and the other with “unnamed, non-specific higher power”.

    • ACN

      I like this idea. It always exposes “tradition” and “heritage” for what they are.

      • http://synackaon.myopenid.com/ Syn

        Bullshit?
        :D

    • Kurt

      Yes!  As a Druid or perhaps as a descendant of Greeks, I demand they replace all references to “God” with “the pantheon of  the many different living Gods”. 

      If there’s one thing that mono-theists fear as much as they fear atheists, it’s those damned poly-theists and their belief in too many higher powers!

      • Bill Burcham

        +1 on hammering on the use of the single God. What about modern polytheists like Wicca, and Hindus. It is a bit of a gambit, but if the University had to change the wording from “God” to “Gods” or “God or Gods” throughout, I’ll bet they would get the point.

        They might reply “oh but there are none of those people in the audience” and then they will have lost. Imagine some policy where the audience had to be surveyed ahead of time before the speech could be worded.

  • Anonymous

    This is disappointing to read, as a UGA alum.  Would it help for me to write a letter to the Terry College of Business?  I’m definitely going to let me nephew know – he’d fit in well with the UGAtheists, but is currently going through that Freshman, not figuring out where he fits in, in Athens, stage.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Yes, it could help, because alumni are very often the most dedicated donors to universities. Any college of business knows that money talks. Spell out your reasons for your disappointment, worry about possible Constitutional lawsuits, and hint at reconsidering the donation you were contemplating.

    • Anonymous

      And I just received an email, asking me to support the “Terry Annual Fund.”  Looks like I’m going to be writing a letter this evening.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    Prayers at graduation generally dismiss the amount of real effort students put into getting their degrees, therefore prayer is insulting.

  • Nude0007

    I just can’t understand why they insist on inserting god into everything.  They can easily be just a tad more considerate and not mention god or petition god in any way.  Surely they can petition their god on their own, in private, or as loud as they want in their church. Calling it tradition is just a huge cop out.   And it doesn’t matter how many times it was found to be inoffensive, they were wrong!

    • Rich Wilson

      Christianity is a persecuted minority.  Teh liberalz and the ACLU have infiltrated the SCOTUS and want to make it illegal to pray in your own home.  They’re already trying to make it illegal to display crosses where anyone might possibly get offended by seeing them.  Churches will have to take down their crosses.  Kids already can’t wear crosses to school.  The only solution is for those few truly God Fearing Patriotic Americans who remain to PRAISE GOD at every opportunity they get!  Democrats HATE Freedom and the Constitution!

      (this is only a slight paraphrase/mashup of some recent online comments I’ve come across)

      • Nude0007

        No one is trying to prevent prayer in private, you either are exaggerating on purpose or out of ignorance or are only listening to others who are misinformed or misinforming you on purpose.

        Crosses are only being fought when they appear on Government land.  The government should not display (endorse) any particular religion, as it is unconstitutional and unfair.

         Democrats LOVE freedom and that is exactly what these actions are fighting to protect.  I will stand with you to protect your right to put up a cross on your property, but not on public property.  AndI will stand by Muslims, or Buddhists to do the same, and fight them if THEY try to put up religious symbols on public property.  Religious symbols on public property discriminate against those who do not believe in that particular religion.

        • Anonymous

          That was sarcasm

  • deityfree

    It’s “part of the University of Georgia’s heritage” – argument from tradition

    “college age students are less impressionable” – misses the argument. This is about inclusion, not the impressionable

    “encourage reflection and meditation” – of what? Someone else’s worldview?

  • Nate

    “We offer thanks for the many professors who have not only taught information, but also a love for learning, both in and out of the classroom.” Why not just thank the professors themselves for being great professors? Why not thank your friends and family? What does God have to do with this?

  • Anonymous

    “…does not proselytize in favor of religious beliefs…”

    I think I’d respond back to the administration that the prayer does proselytize in favor of religious belief.  I’d also send them an edited version of their invocation that has been rewritten to remove references to god, but otherwise follows their original wording as closely as possible.  Instead of “we are thankful for professors..” etc, it can read “we thank the professors…”  Much more appropriate.

  • Ronlawhouston

    Airhorns came to my mind, but that might be just a tad bit over the top.

    • Redlady1979

      People often decorate the tops of their caps. That would be a nice place for statements, especially if a group could work together like the shirtless football fans that spell out D-A-W-G-S. 

  • John Morris

    regular letters from regular people don’t do jack- but an official letter from the ACLU DOES- contact the ACLU and see if there is anything they can d0 to help- that would be my first word of advice!

  • Burt Likko

    Hit them where it’ll hurt them:

    “Dear University of Georgia, I have $100 in disposable income I would otherwise donate to you. However, you maintain an unnecessary and divisive practice of including prayer at University events such as graduation, which I find inappropriate and contrary to the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution of the United States.

    “I would have no problem with a moment of silence in place of invocations; those in attendance who wish to pray could do so, and the others need not feel compelled or pressured to subscribe to beliefs they do not share. At such time in the future if the University changes its practices and demonstrates respect for all of its students and alumni, including those who like myself do not believe in the supernatural, I will be pleased to include the University of Georgia in my philanthropic activities.

    “Until then, my charitable donations will go the Secular Student Alliance. Thank you for your attention to this issue.”

  • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com Marguerite

    I’m bewildered as to why a prayer to “God” is nonsectarian and doesn’t reference a specific deity.  That makes zero sense.  Is it presumed that “God” is just a vague blanket term standing for all gods in all religions?  If so, surely they should at least be required to say “God or gods” to  cover polytheism.

    • Rich Wilson

      Well the argument is

       such practices as the designation of “In God We Trust” as our national motto, or the references to God contained in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag can best be understood, in Dean Rostow’s apt phrase, as a form a “ceremonial deism,” 24 protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content

      (IANAL but I think those were Justice Brennan’s words dissenting (in a case where the SCOTUS allowed for a city to have a creche in the holiday display)

      http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=465&invol=668
      The top of that case is interesting reading as well.

      e.g.

       The concept of a “wall” of separation between church and state is a useful metaphor but is not an accurate description of the practical aspects of the relationship that in fact exists. The Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. Anything less would require the “callous indifference,”

      • Nude0007

        The supreme court can be wrong, and are if they do not support the STRICT separation of church and state.  The problem is that some justices can’t separate their beliefs from the needs of the state either.  The state must be fair and impartial to all beliefs or lack of beliefs, so it must never put any symbols up that ascribe to any one religion because that is discrimination everywhere and anytime it is done.  NO exceptions..

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    Bring an air horn, sound it after every god reference.

    • Bevidence

      Make that a ‘clown horn’ ~ honkle-honkle :)

  • Annie

    Although this won’t be very helpful for this situation, I think it would be great if the SSA created some sort of list to highlight “atheist-friendly campuses”.  Perhaps there could be certain criteria to rate each campus (presence of a SSA, how much red tape was required to start up the SSA, prayers at commencement ceremonies, etc.).  This could be a useful tool for atheist students who are choosing a college or university.  I would be willing to volunteer to research schools in my area (North Central Florida).

  • Anonymous

    May their sights be set not only on advancing their own needs and
    desires, but the needs of all peoples with whom we share this
    ever-shrinking planet.

    Someone needs to write them and tell them that if they actually mean that part, they should pay attention to the bit where the needs of Hindus require the invocation of Ganesha before the start of any venture. And the bit where the needs of Wiccans require the invocation of the Goddess as well as the God. And the bit where…add a few more such examples and close up with ‘and the needs of atheists and other nonreligious folk require the recognition that there are no gods. So either invoke all the relevant deities in your invocation and then assert that none of them exist, or invoke no deities at all.’…I just got drafted, didn’t I.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_E5IVDLJRGQTAVFK4KHLDKDH55Y Daniel

    A Simple Note:  

    Please inform the alumni association that I will not be making any donations until such time as this prayer is stopped.Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1535286477 Roxane Farrell Murray

    Congratulations to the UGAtheists.  When I got my MA there in 1974, there is no way that anybody would have even raised the question.  Progress is being made.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36603391 Christina Cook

    There is, and has always been, an enormous controversy over separation of church and state in this nation. And even for those who do believe in separation of church and state (as I do), there is the issue of how far that idea extends. Some argue that all this means, or should mean, that the state does not sponsor religion, or allow religious dogma to influence state affairs. The problem is that religion (and the state, technically speaking) can be applied a plethora of ways . Just as any mention or symbol of a higher deity can be considered religious, so too any entity that is mildly affliated  with the government can be considered the state. So how far should this be taken? What did the founders intend (and does it even matter)?

    Though I am certain none of the leaders of the Revolutionary Generation were devoutly religious, I am equally certain that none intended to form a “godless” state. Ben Franklin was enormously skeptical of religion, and yet he suggested that members of congress open each session with prayer. Likewise, Thomas Paine was a skeptic (some go so far as to claim him an atheist), but this did not stop him from employing an evangelical approach in Common Sense. There are other examples that could be cited of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and George Washington; all of whom seemingly contradicted the principle of this separation (or at least when viewed in a modern context).

    I am a huge fan of secularism. I am also a fan of the constitiution. The problem to me seems to be whether eliminating all religious symbols and references from the public sphere in the name of SOCAS might actually inhibit others’ right to express their religion. . The refreshing writings that are usually published on this blog are like a breath of fresh air in a community that overflows with fundamentalists and has more churches than bars (perhaps a slight hyperbole, but I’m not far off). Despite this, I can’t shake the feeling that somehow we are going too far, and in asserting our rights to deny religion, are trying to take away others’ rights to express it anywhere other than their own homes or church. And that, I do not believe, makes us any better than fundamentalists like David Barton, who has spent years trying to convince people that our government was never designed to even have a separation of church and state, or even elected officials outside the Christian faith.

    Atheists should be accepted and respected, but so should the religious. Trying to maintain this balance of freedom of expression and non-coercion can be difficult, but moderation (or compromise for that matter) never is. If people want to pray in schools, or in public buildings, let them. As long as it isn’t mandatory, done on taxpayers’ dime, and no one is forcing anyone to do anything, it should be alright. The uproar in his most recent blog post disturbs me, because it is all over the simple fact a nonsectarian prayer was said at UGA’s graduation ceremony. Who cares? Was anyone forcing anyone else to sit through it? No. Was anyone forcing anyone to bow their heads or pray along? No. If it makes people uncomfortable, they are free to leave. No one will deny them their degree if they refuse to listen to a short prayer. I think it would be prudent to choose our battles more wisely. 

    • ACN

      I care. What possible secular reason is there for forcing the attendees of a secular university for sitting through a religious invocation?

      Hint: There is none.

      The problem here is I think you’ve accepted the premise of the religious, that a LACK of prayer is in itself advocating atheism on the part of the state. This is vehemently false. A lack of a prayer is a demonstration of secularism on the part of the state, a demonstration that whatever the religious beliefs of the audience, the state neither affirms or denies them, and THIS is precisely the type of secularism that I want from the state.

      I don’t want a “atheist invocation” (whatever that might look like), and I don’t want a  religious invocation either. It is unnecessary, it puts the state in the position of advocating theism over deism, agnosticism, atheism etc, and if the shoe were on the other foot, I’d argue just as loudly that the state should neither affirm nor deny anyone’s reasonable religious convictions. I know that ‘reasonable religious convictions’ is sort of a oxymoron, but all I’m getting at is the obvious “not in contradiction to the constitutional and statutory law of the state” sort of thing.

    • Anonymous

      And yet countries that don’t have such a strict separation of church and state – some in fact with state religions – have much less religion in the public. Their Christians don’t need to pray at every opportunity and at every single public function or ceremony, but they don’t feel restricted in their freedom. How come?

      You said “as long as it isn’t mandatory”. Well, if you’re standing in a crowd and have someone pray in front of you, participation is in fact mandatory. And standing in silence – maybe even forced to bow your head “out of respect” (as it frequently happens in the military) – is participation. How is that respectful of the non-religious?

      The simple fact is that prayer is completely unnecessary at such an occasion. Just have a speech. Much more meaningful and interesting

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=36603391 Christina Cook

        Your first paragraph is very true and an interesting point. However, I disagree with your assertion that allowing someone to pray before you is the same as participation. It isn’t. And while what you say about the military is also true and an excellent point, we aren’t talking about those instances. We are talking about UGA. Just like the other commenter, you make the claim people were being forced into doing this, and that isn’t true. 

        • Anonymous

          Only from your point of view. Plenty of atheists or people with different religions find having to stand up and listen to prayer highly offensive and insulting. It’s also insulting to have your own academic accomplishments be attributed to some deity

          People are being forced to be there and listen. Participation simply isn’t voluntary. Please stop lying about that. It’s not like they have an optional church service before the actual graduation. It’s a prayer or at least a highly religious speech during the graduation ceremony

    • Bevidence

      “I have met some
      highly intelligent believers, but history has no record to say that [s]he knew
      or understood the mind of god. Yet this is precisely the qualification which
      the godly must claim—so modestly and so humbly—to possess. It is time to
      withdraw our ‘respect’ from such fantastic claims, all of them aimed at the
      exertion of power over other humans in the real and material world.” Christopher Hitchens

  • Mr Z

    Too many folk look at the governments mandate to not endorse any religion as being fulfilled if no specific religion is mentioned. The problem is that the mention of ANY god is an endorsement of religion and it biases all proceedings against those of no religion. Any statement that supports the belief system of religions is a bias against non-religious citizens. To think this is not a problem is to say that your not biased against anyone of color yet exclude albinos. As long as your skin has some color  you are okay. Even the mention of a higher power is biased against those who do not believe and so should not be acceptable. Praising anyone other than those who are physically present is wrong.

    The thought that an invisible supernatural being might be real has NO place in government. Any thought contrary to this is in violation of the ideology of separation of church and state. No matter that some will say your higher power can be a coffee cup, the thought that something or some entity has more power over a citizen than the government is in violation of the rights granted to the government by our constitution. No government sponsored function should be allowed to promote such thinking. The wall of separation idea means that there should be no conflict…. that is to say that nothing government does should cause confusion on such matters. If government functions do cause confusion it should be eliminated immediately. While impropriety might be acceptable in the religious world, it is not acceptable in the area of public governance.

    end of story


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