UCLA Allows Student to Thank Jesus at Graduation

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By Katherine T. Phan, Christian Post Reporter
June 6, 2009|11:52 pm

The University of California in Los Angeles has responded to media pressure and agreed to allow a graduating student to thank Jesus in her personal statement.

UCLA student Christina Popa claimed the school's Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology was denying her freedom of speech when she was told by Pamela Hurley, a faculty adviser, that she would not be allowed to mention "Jesus" in her graduation remarks.

The adviser had told Popa in an e-mail exchanges this week that it was against the MCDB's department policy to allow specific religious references based on the principle of separation of church and state.

Hurley, the person selected to read aloud students' personal statements at the department's commencement, informed Popa that she would instead read the reference to "my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" as simply "God."

In response, Popa launched campaign on Facebook that received the support of 1,500 people in a matter of days.

Gordon Klingenschmitt, the former Navy chaplain who was fired over a dispute involving a public prayer he gave in Jesus' name, also rallied behind the UCLA student. He created an online petition asking UCLA officials to allow Popa to mention "Jesus" in her "Words of Wisdom" statement and issued a press release on the matter, which he then sent the university's chancellor and provost.

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On Friday, a UCLA spokesperson sent Klingenschmitt a statement saying that the school had reviewed its procedures and would read the statements as originally submitted by the students.

"The reading of 'words of wisdom' at the UCLA Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology involves graduating students' submission of a short message to be read onstage at Commencement by a member of the University Administration," read UCLA's statement. "Because the reading is by the University, not the students, to avoid the appearance that the University was advocating one religion over the other, guidelines were established so that messages would not include references to particular religions."

"The department and the University support the First Amendment and in no way intended to impinge upon any students' rights," continued the statement.

"Thus, upon review, and recognizing that the intent of the ceremony is for all students to have a chance to say something at graduation, the department will continue to make clear to the audience that the statements are the personal statements of each student and will read statements as originally submitted by the students."

 Klingenschmitt welcomed the UCLA's response, saying media pressure helped them come to their senses.

"If the university has indeed repented and will read Christina's statement as originally submitted, then this is a great victory for religious liberty," Klingenschmitt told The Christian Post on Saturday.

"It proves that we don't always have to go to court and sometimes just a little media pressure can force administrators to recant from their anti-Christian policies," the former Navy chaplain stated.

He said only one question remains: "Will Hurley obey her superiors and read the words as originally submitted?"

According e-mail exchanges with Popa, Hurley had objected to the "Jesus" reference, citing the "sheer diversity of religious beliefs" of people at the school and saying she was uncomfortable with reading such a reference at the commencement.

Popa, however, responded that university meant "unity among diversity."

"It makes me very sad that my freedom of speech would be censored when it comes to my beliefs," Popa wrote in a reply e-mail to Hurley. "The fact that I cannot thank Jesus (or someone from another religion) because of school policy shows me that UCLA officials do not understand what diversity and respect really means."

In the last e-mail Hurley sent to Popa, according to the Facebook posting, the faculty adviser stated the department's policy and the Official Words of Wisdom Disclaimer before capping off with this retort:

"If you prefer, Christina, I can read none of what you wrote."

Hurley did not immediately respond to a request by The Christian Post for comment.

While things have worked out for Popa, a former Colorado high school student who has been fighting a legal battle to defend her right to invoke Jesus during a 2006 graduation speech was not so fortunate.

On May 29, a federal appeals court dismissed Erica Corder's claims that high school officials violated her free-speech rights by screening her graduation speech and forcing her to issue a formal apology after tweaking her valedictorian speech to include mention of Jesus.

Liberty Counsel, which is representing Corder in the case, plans to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

"No high school or college graduate should have to renounce Jesus Christ as a price of their high school or college diploma," said Klingenschmitt, who actively defends public prayers in Jesus' name. "Jesus is not an illegal word. We should not be ashamed to speak his name in public.

"For any government to demand that we apologize for speaking the name of Jesus is to impose their illegal nonsectarian religion upon us," he added. "They are shoving their nonsectarian religion down our throats, not the other way around."

According to UCLA's Commencement Web site, the Molecular, Cell, & Developmental Biology Graduation will take place Saturday, June 13, starting at 9:00 a.m.

 Popa originally wanted the following statement read:

"'I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I also want to thank my father who passed away 3 years ago, for teaching me to always do my best and thus motivating me to pursue the sciences. I want to thank my mother for supporting me in school as well as my sisters and brother for encouraging me and my friends for making college fun.' I plan to work in a research lab or become a dietician."

 

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