U-Md. Senate Votes to Eliminate Invocation

By Martin Weil and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The senate at the University of Maryland at College Park has voted to eliminate the invocation from the school's commencement ceremony.

The recommendation, which must be approved by the university's president to take effect, was intended to be more sensitive to the concerns of believers and nonbelievers, said senate Chair Kenneth Holum.

The senate, which has about 175 members and includes faculty, students and staff, voted 42 to 14 to abolish the prayer, which is a long-standing feature of commencements at many institutions of higher education.

Holum said it was understood that many people on the large and diverse Maryland campus "felt excluded or marginalized" by having any prayer and by the prayers that have been delivered, which they considered essentially Christian in form and motivation.

Holum said the proposal was placed before the senate Monday after "a couple of years" of study by the body's committee on human relations.

A university spokesman said that President C.D. Mote Jr. had not received a copy of the recommendation and that the university had no comment at this time.

The extent to which the senate's action came as a departure from common practice in higher education was not immediately clear.

The committee of the campus senate that studied the issue reported that universities that U-Md. regards as its peers, or to whose status it aspires, do not include prayer at their commencements.

Those, it was reported, include the University of California at Berkeley and the universities of Michigan and Illinois. It was not immediately clear whether prayer had ever been included in their ceremonies.

In addition, William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said he understood that many public universities are moving away from including prayer at commencement.

On the other hand, at least one First Amendment specialist who was reached last night indicated a belief that Maryland would be taking an unusual step.

Prayer at university commencements "is part of the fabric of American life," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.

If any movement has grown up to alter university exercises by eliminating prayer, "I haven't seen it," Haynes said.

Supreme Court rulings on prayer in schools have not had the effect at the university level that they have had in the lower grades.

Specialists say court rulings on school prayer have made distinctions between students at different ages and levels of education.

A widely quoted legal theory has been that university students are older, less impressionable and less likely to feel subject to coercion or to require protection against it.

Holum, a specialist in the history of the ancient Mediterranean, said the discussion at Monday's meeting was not hostile to religion.

"It was just a matter of whether this [the commencement exercise] is an appropriate place for religious expression."

He said that in his memory the invocation has usually been offered by one of the chaplains at the university. (There is no benediction.)

The Rev. Peter Antoci, the Episcopal chaplain at Maryland, said he and others "hope that this is not going to be a precedent for curtailing religious expression" on campus.

He said the chaplains -- who are not paid by the university -- did not take a position on the recommendation before the senate.

But he said, in a statement prepared for the meeting, they tried to remind listeners that "religious speech is not banned speech . . . that religious expression is a vital part of cultural diversity in the world we live in today."

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