The ACLU is asking the state Board of Regents, which oversees the Montana University System, to look into the matter and apologize for violating the First Amendment rights of people attending the graduation ceremony.
The ACLU charges that MSU-Northern asked a local pastor — Tim Zerger of Community Alliance Church — to give the invocation and benediction, and that he was clearly “proselytizing” by invoking the image of Jesus Christ during the ceremonies, which the ACLU said violates the separation of church and state.g
Several members of the faculty contacted the ACLU after the May 10 graduation ceremonies to voice their concerns over the requirement that they attend a graduation ceremony where evangelical Christian prayers were recited.
“Separation of church and state is a cornerstone of the U.S. and Montana constitutions. The ability to practice any faith or no faith at all goes to the essence of what it means to be a free person,” state ACLU of Legal Director Betsy Griffing said. “MSU-Northern showed poor judgment and a lack of respect for its students, faculty and staff by overtly endorsing one specific religion at its graduation.”
Leslie Taylor, chief legal counsel for MSU in Bozeman, said campus administrators received the letter from the ACLU Tuesday and they are looking into the matter. She said it’s a bit confusing to tell exactly what the ACLU is looking for based on the letter. At one point, the ACLU asks that administrators look into the matter and that they apologize.
“To me, that’s getting the cart before the horse,” she said. “Maybe there’s nothing to apologize for.”
Invocations and benedictions are not banned from university campuses.