Hundreds of people on Sunday turned up for the first public demonstration protesting President Obama's invitation to speak at the University of Notre Dame commencement ceremony.
A mixed crowd of 400 students, alumni and pro-life supporters gathered in front of the campus' administration building after Palm Sunday Mass to rally against the speech.
The prayer rally was organized by Notre Dame Response, a coalition of student groups that formed in response to the university's decision to invite Obama as the commencement speaker and award him a honorary doctor of laws degree at the May 17 event. The White House formally accepted the invitation last month.
ND Response is demanding that the Indiana-based Catholic institution withdraw its offer of the honorary degree to the president because of his abortion policies, including his recent actions to allow federal funds for overseas abortions and embryonic stem cell research.
The group says the president's actions show contempt for Catholic teachings on the sanctity and dignity of all human life.
Despite a statement from the university president, the Rev. John Jenkins, saying the invitation does not mean that the school condones Obama's stances on abortion issues, the group is refusing to just sit back and take the decision quietly.
"We feel it's a betrayal of the Catholic identity that Notre Dame was founded on," John Daly, media coordinator of the coalition, told The Christian Post on Sunday.
One protester held a sign that posed the question: "Would you invite Pilate after he condemned Christ?" next to a picture of Obama. The banner also included scripture based on Matthew 25:4 reading, "Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me."
Daly, who graduated from the university last Spring, clarified that ND Response is not asking for the invitation to be rescinded, only the honorary degree.
"We feel it would be a great disrespect to the office of the president to ask for the White House to rescind an invitation they already accepted. However, the university has yet to give the honorary degree," he said.
Awarding a Notre Dame law degree to Obama who has used the law to deny equality to the unborn would diminish the value of the degree itself, says the coalition according to an earlier statement.
At the afternoon rally, ND Response chairman Chris Labadie likened Notre Dame's decision to invite Obama to deliver the commencement speech to welcoming an abortion "plague" to the university.
"Since 1973, a plague has ravished our country," Labadie said, according to The Associated Press. "It's not AIDS, Ebola, or the Black Death it's something far worse. It kills bodies and unborn souls. Now this plague has reached the gates of Notre Dame. It's been invited inside by those who shouldn't have let it."
Pro-life attorney Harold Cassidy, the event's keynote speaker, argued that abortion is a human rights violation against both the pregnant mother and the unborn child. He also made the argument that the pro-life movement is not just a phenomenon among the religious.
"Secular expressions about the sanctity of life, including the sanctity of life of the unborn child, are everywhere," Cassidy told the crowd.
The controversy over the Obama speech has drawn widespread attention.
The demonstration was supported by Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to renewing and strengthening Catholic identity at America's 224 Catholic colleges and universities, which on Sunday asked supporters through Twitter to offer a rosary in honor of the rally.
CNS, along with CatholicVote.com, has also gathered over 243,000 signatures at NotreDameScandal.com in a petition urging university president Jenkins to rescind the invitation.
Nearly two-thirds of rally participants had traveled from out of state, including Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, according to Daly.
He said the recent outpouring of statements from Catholic bishops denouncing the Obama invite have also greatly encouraged the coalition members.
"It's great to know that our reaction is mirrored by so many outside the community," Daly commented.
He added, however, that the student body as a whole considers the president's appearance an honor in spite of who he is and what he's done.
An overwhelming majority of seniors who have sent letters to the school newspaper, The Observer, support Obama as the commencement speaker, while letters from alumni have overwhelmingly opposed his appearance, the paper's editor told The New York Times.
Daly said the Seniors Commission of ND Response, a committee which will organize the methods of witness by Notre Dame seniors during commencement, are still debating on how the seniors will respond to the event.
"It's an emotionally-charged issue," he said.
In addition to Sunday's rally, ND Response is collecting empty red envelopes that are meant to represent a child lost by abortion. The coalition plans to collect and deliver the envelopes to Jenkins, asking him to personally hand them to Obama at the commencement ceremony.
Obama will be the ninth U.S. president to be awarded an honorary degree by the University of Notre Dame and the sixth to be the commencement speaker. Past commencement speakers include President George W. Bush, President Ronald Reagan and President John F. Kennedy.