It's rare for the University Senate at UMD to make bold moves, but to my surprise, they did exactly that last week. After studying the issue for years, they voted overwhelmingly (75% in favor) to eliminate the prayer at graduation. Critics of the prayer had pointed out that it was divisive - usually it has been a Christian prayer, and many students, faculty, and parents attending the ceremony are non-Christians. UMD is a public institution, and of course the Constitution of the U.S. prohibits states from endorsing any religion. A Jewish history professor, Marsha Rozenblit, said that "the real concern .. is the separation of church and state."
Nonetheless, I was surprised when I read, on the front page of the Washington Post, that UMD was eliminating the prayer ceremony at graduation. Another step forward towards rational behavior, and away from primitive superstitions - hurrah! (I'd like to report that UMD was being a leader here, but in reality we are just following other large state universities. The University Senate committee studying the issue looked at UC Berkeley, U. Illinois, U. Michigan, UNC, and UCLA, and found that none have prayer at their campus graduation ceremonies. But still, better late than never.)
The religious right immediately went on the attack, not surprisingly. The ultra-conservative Washington Times wrote that UMD is "on a mission to demonstrate its hostility to the core values of the community" and accused the university senate of "religious intolerance." They also claimed that "only a small group of anti-social cranks in the 'large and diverse' student community would feel alienated by a nondenominational prayer." Sorry, Wash Times, but calling us names doesn't advance your argument - and they have no evidence that only a "small group" want to eliminate prayer at graduation. In fact, every student representative in the University Senate voted to eliminate the prayer. One of them, David Zuckerman, said "Unfortunately, President Mote does not respect that we are the students who represent the student population in the shared government system."
Now for the bad news: in a surprising rebuff to the University Senate, UMD's president, Dan Mote, rejected their proposal and decided that prayer would continue exactly as before. (The Senate is only "advisory" to the President, so he has the power to reject their advice.) The student newspaper, the Diamondback, had reported that President Mote "rarely ignores the university's most powerful legislative body, which directly advises him on policy." Well, not this time. I can only guess at Mote's reasoning, but he issued a written statement that said:
"For many people, a prayer of gratitude and a moment of reflection are an important part of our commencement tradition. A great many people who participate in our ceremonies either embrace this tradition or are willing to allow others who value it to have it as part of the ceremony. After careful reflection, I have decided to continue our current tradition with respect to the invocation at commencement."This is startlingly bad logic. It reflects the tyranny of the majority - exactly the sort of behavior that the Constitution prohibits in the First Amendment. Just because "many people" want a prayer doesn't mean they can impose their religious beliefs on others. I'm afraid that President Mote surrendered to political pressures (perhaps from the state legislature) rather than standing up for the students, the faculty, and the Constitution. This is really disappointing.
Missed in all the hubbub over this topic is this: graduation is a celebration of learning and academic achievement. Religion has no place in the graduation ceremony of a secular university: students don't come here to study religion. Why not have a lecture from a physicist, or a biologist, or a historian? At least that would be appropriate. Religion calls for strict, unquestioning adherence to dogma, while a university education teaches students (I hope) to question, to explore, and to reason about the world.
I hope the university senate at UMD makes the same recommendation again, and again, until President Mote follows their advice.