For years, students graduating from the West Virginia University, Parkersburg nursing program had regularly included prayers in their pinning (i.e., graduation) ceremonies. And in mid-November, University officials told students that they needed to vote on three issues regarding their ceremony and that the majority vote would carry the day. One issue was whether to include an invocation and benediction, and the students voted overwhelmingly (40-to-4) to include them. So they selected someone—a student’s father—to deliver the prayers. But the University responded differently. Suddenly saying that a 100% vote was required, it banned all prayer from the ceremony. When pressed to explain this decision, the nursing director attributed the decision to the University’s president, vice president, and attorneys. Allegedly, the University had legal concerns, particularly potential lawsuits if someone were offended by the prayers.
One of the students Terra Parsons contacted the Alliance Defending Freedom Center for Academic Freedom and on December 13, 2010, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys sent WVU-Parkersburg officials a letter explaining that federal appellate courts have unanimously upheld graduation prayers at universities as constitutional and that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting speech—including religious speech—simply because someone might find it offensive. Alliance Defending Freedom urged the officials to allow the student to exercise their First Amendment freedoms by restoring the prayers.
Despite students’ objections and repeated letters from Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of the students, the administration steadfastly refused to restore the prayers, clinging to the arbitrarily imposed unanimity requirement.
UPDATE: The pinning cermony was postponed due to inclement weather to January 22nd. On January 18th, Terra was told by the administration that none of the student speakers would be permitted to speak at the pinning ceremony. When Terra asked for the reason behind this sudden change, she was told that “the faculty” had voted not to allow the student speakers and to feature another speaker instead. Later, Terra learned that the faculty had selected a non-student speaker, indicating that WVU-Parkersburg has now ignored the voice of the students on all three issues presented to them.
Because the decision to eliminate the student speakers from the Pinning Ceremony may constitute First Amendment retaliation. Alliance Defending Freedom has sent a second demand letter to the administration.
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