Colorado Mesa University Reverses Requirement to Remove Religious References From Grad Speeches

Photo Credit: Jeremiah Habecker

GRAND JUNCTION, Co. — Colorado Mesa University (CMU) has reversed its requirement that graduation speeches must be devoid of religious references after a prominent religious liberties organization contacted them on behalf of a student who was told she needed to keep comments about Christianity out of her planned speech for the nursing program’s pinning ceremony.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) recently sent a letter to university officials on behalf of nursing student Karissa Erickson, who wanted to share at the end of her speech about how she has found comfort in the word of the Lord in the midst of adversity.

“I find comfort in Jesus’ words, and I pass them on to you. John 16:33 [says], ‘These things I have spoken to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world,” Erickson planned to say.

However, after officials reviewed the drafted speech, she was informed that the university does not allow specific religious references and asked her to “take out the last section where you [state] that you find comfort in Jesus’ words and cite a Bible verse.”

When Erickson asked if there was a certain policy that she violated, she was directed to speak with BSN Program Director Karen Uban, who advised that students had previously taken offense at a Gideon Bible distribution years earlier. Therefore, she said, Scriptures and religious references are not allowed due to the potential that others might be offended.

CMU is just “tired of dealing with this and has no more energy to spend towards it,” Urban reportedly stated.

Therefore, Erickson contacted ADF to obtain legal assistance, and a staff attorney submitted a letter to President Tim Foster and Urban outlining that the requirement for Erickson to sanitize her speech of Christian references violates the U.S. Constitution.

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“It is … well established that university officials cannot silence speech simply because it expresses a particular viewpoint, including a religious one,” wrote attorney Travis Barham. “The Supreme Court has held on at least three separate occasions that ‘speech discussing otherwise permissible subjects cannot be excluded from a limited public forum on the ground that the subject is discussed from a religious viewpoint.'”

“CMU will allow Miss Erickson to deliver graduation remarks from any perspective whatsoever. But once she gave a religious perspective, the censors sprang into action. They allow her to quote the story about adversity but object when she quotes Jesus. This is textbook viewpoint discrimination, a blatant First Amendment violation,” he warned.

Barham also noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that mere offense is not a sufficient reason to stifle speech.

Read the letter in full here.

On Tuesday, Urban sent out an email to her colleagues, which stated that “[s]tudents invited to speak at the BSN pinning should speak uncensored. The faculty pinning committees will not review student speeches.”

View the email here.

ADF has applauded the reversal, noting that even the Founding Fathers spoke of religion in their speeches; therefore, such inclusion was obviously not considered unconstitutional.

“America’s Founding Fathers regularly opened public ceremonies with prayer, and federal appeals courts have consistently ruled that universities can do the same at their graduation ceremonies,” Barham said in a press release on Thursday. “We applaud the university for quickly recognizing that the First Amendment protects a graduating student’s right to mention her faith in her own speech and has never required universities to purge ceremonies of all things religious.”

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