It is that season once again. And no, I am not talking about the Christmas season, when America collectively ponders once again whether it is all right to say, “Merry Christmas.” (The correct answer is “yes,” by the way.) Instead, I am talking about graduation season, and apparently, the prayer grinches have popped up once again, this time at West Virginia University, Parkersburg.
While the general story line may be familiar, the facts here are unique. During class in November, the graduating students were told that they would need to vote on three issues related to their pinning ceremony (the nursing equivalent to graduation). One of these issues was whether to include prayers in the ceremony as prior classes had regularly done. But when the students approved the prayers by more than a 90% margin (40-4) and selected a student’s father to give the prayers, the University suddenly decided majority rule would no longer apply.
Instead, the University decided that because the vote was not unanimous, no prayers would be allowed. According to the director of the nursing program, Mrs. Rose Beebe, neither President Gnage nor Vice President Richards wanted the prayers included, and their voted outweighed those of 90% of the students. She also explained that the University eliminated the prayers due to legal concerns, particularly the threat of lawsuits if someone found the prayers offensive. When students noted that federal courts have repeatedly upheld college graduation prayers Mrs. Beebe commented that although the University understands that the Constitution allows graduation prayers, it is choosing to ban them at all ceremonies because someone might be offended.
WVU-Parkersburg’s decision is disappointing on many levels. As the students noted, federal appellate courts have unanimously upheld these graduation prayers at universities, saying that they are completely consistent with the First Amendment. After all, the First Amendment exists to protect—not eliminate—religious speech. And as the Sixth Circuit observed when upholding these prayers in its 1996 Chaudhuri decision, “[t]he American people did not adopt the Bill of Rights to strip the public square of every last shred of public piety.”
In addition, the whole point of the First Amendment is to protect controversial speech, making the “100% approval” test a constitutional absurdity. Controversial speech is, after all, the only kind of speech that needs protection precisely because it sparks disagreement. But time and again, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot restrict speech simply because someone is offended. Because someone is bound to be offended by just about anything, any other rule would entirely squelch the free, unfettered exchange of ideas that makes our nation strong. Thus, as the Supreme Court put it in Cohen v. California, the government is not empowered to cleanse public discourse until it is “palatable to the most squeamish among us.”
The good news, though, is that there is hope for the prayer grinches, just like there was for Dr. Suess’s character. Back in May, the prayer grinches struck a community college in Arizona, but they ultimately restored the prayers after receiving a letter from ADF. WVU-Parkersburg officials just received a similar letter, and hopefully, it will spark a similar reaction. As the letter notes, “[i]t is both lawful and wise for University officials to respect and cherish our religious heritage and allow the invocation of God’s protection, blessing, and guidance on their graduates.” But even more basically, the University should allow its students to do what the Constitution allows them to do at this memorable ceremony: to pray.