Last Tuesday, I read in The Diamondback, the student-run newspaper at the University of Maryland, that the university senate has decided to remove the prayers from the general graduation ceremony in light of the secular nature of the university and the diversity of its students.
I’d spent so much time working toward graduation here at GW that I had not spent any time thinking about the ceremony itself. When I read this article, I was worried that GW, a school created as a nonsectarian institution by an act of a secular Congress in 1821, would include these prayers. I called the Office of University Events and they confirmed that GW does include an invocation and benediction at graduation.
Learning this was extremely disheartening. I feel that I’ve worked so hard to graduate, only to be excluded at my own graduation. GW includes a diverse body of students from many different faiths – as well as those with no faith, or even anti-faith. We have a special service for students of faith, the interfaith baccalaureate, which kicks off Commencement Weekend. This is a great chance for students to come together in prayer if they so choose. However, the general commencement is for all of the graduating students — not just those of faith.
At the first Student Association senate-elect meeting on Tuesday, former Executive Vice President Brand Kroeger commented that the prayers are not there to exclude anyone, but are meant to bring us together. Unfortunately, they do not do this. Brand and I will be brought together at Commencement by our achievements at GW, not by our faith or lack thereof. We come together to celebrate these achievements, not to pray. However, during these formal prayers, Brand and I, united in our achievements, will become divided by our religious beliefs. This is what the effect of the invocation and benediction is.
The other argument put forth against inclusion of all students at commencement was by SA Vice President Kyle Boyer. His was a simple argument for tradition. Yet many traditions have changed since 1821, often for the better. Currently, students for transgender rights on campus are fighting exclusion with a pending nondiscrimination bill. As the diversity of our University is strengthened in time, outdated traditions of exclusion should change.
I want the day of commencement to be concerned with what we share, not what we disagree on. I would rather be united with Brand and with all of my religious friends on campus, than for us to be separated on a day that is meant to bring every graduating student of the University together. Removing the formal prayers from the general commencement does not keep any person of faith from saying any prayer they wish. It only comes one step closer to eliminating divisive traditions of our school.
The University Policy on Equal Opportunity states that The George Washington University does not unlawfully discriminate against any person on the basis of religion. Is lawful discrimination really any better?
The writer is a senior majoring in computer science.
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