May 4, 2012 5:36 PM   Subscribe

Official prayer at a publicly-funded college? Whom do you complain to?

To whom should my friend complain to? She goes to a publicly-funded state college. The college starts every semester with an official convocation. The convocation starts with a non-sectarian prayer. It is still a prayer. She is not interested in complaining to the college or university administration. She wants to complain about this to an outside source.
posted by wandering_not_lost to Law & Government (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What does she want the end result of her complaint to be?
posted by decathecting at 5:37 PM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

That has probably been the norm for 150 years there.

What is the complaint? Is it worth a large headline on The New York Times?
posted by caclwmr4 at 5:55 PM on May 4, 2012

Although you qualify this as wanting to complain to an outside source, I do think that the first place to have a conversation is generally with an offending party, assuming that there is no potential for harm.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:56 PM on May 4, 2012

Result of complaint would be no more prayer!
posted by wandering_not_lost at 6:00 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

What sort of prayer? I mean, is it a sort of wishy washy "thanks be to god" sort of thing, where the offending issue is that it gives the event a tinge of religion/mentions the horrible G word? Or is it some kind of horrid fundamentalist rant about Jesus saving the poor fetuses?

If it's a small school in a culturally conservative/rural part of the country where the vast vast VAST majority of students are Christian and don't even think of something like saying grace or the expression "you're in my prayers" as being religious, I don't know that there's anything to be gained here if the prayer is of the former variety.

I mean, maybe if she really and truly cares (and, again, we're not talking about open proselytizing or hot button theological issues), maybe start an Atheists Club at school, and use it as an excuse to meet and socialize with like-minded students?

Unless there's something in the Civil Rights act I can't think of off the top of my head or an obscure Supreme Court ruling somewhere, I don't know that there is anything specifically illegal about a "nonsectarian prayer" during an event like that, especially if the event is not mandatory for students to attend.
posted by Sara C. at 6:01 PM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Per your update - start an Atheists Club and petition the school to get rid of the prayer. Maybe they will be successful, but even if they're not, it'll be an interesting learning experience for all concerned.
posted by Sara C. at 6:02 PM on May 4, 2012

She could write a letter about it to the ACLU. But it really is important for her to first identify what she is hoping to accomplish by way of her complaint, if anything, and then be very clear about that in her letter.

On preview, I see that she's hoping to make a complaint that will stop the university from having a non-sectarian prayer at convocation. Unfortunately, there is no complaint of any kind that will accomplish that result. A lawsuit costing millions of dollars and taking several years might, if she's very, very, incredibly, impossibly lucky, make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and change the law such that the university would be forced to stop the practice. But, honestly, that's not going to happen, even if she's willing to head up such a huge effort and even if all the stars align, as it were.

That's not to say that it's not worth it to complain. It just won't accomplish the desired goal.
posted by The World Famous at 6:04 PM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Supreme Court said that non-sectarian prayer at a high school graduation was out of line, but two appellate courts have said that non-sectarian prayer is OK at college and university graduations. The theory is that you don't really *have* to attend the college graduation ceremony the same way you have to attend the high school graduation ceremony (which seems weak to me, but I'm not the 6th and 7th Circuits). And really a convocation is even less necessary to attend than a graduation.

So it's not considered illegal right now. It's also very, very common. My (public) university had lots of quasi-religious ceremonies (I'm an atheist, but some of them I absolutely loved, especially one for the December holidays). Once or twice I did end up at an event that made me uncomfortable. And I thought about how seriously uncomfortable it made me, and if it seemed worth it I complained to the people who put it on, and usually they were very nice about it and at least once there was a promise to never let the situation happen again.

I agree that a petition, an awareness-raising campaign, personal complaint to the administration, or some kind of counterprogramming makes more sense here, and though it's unlikely to succeed in getting them to drop the prayer it's still VASTLY MORE LIKELY to work than getting a lawsuit to the Supreme Court!
posted by mskyle at 6:09 PM on May 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

One thing that she might try, in addition to the idea of starting an Atheists Club, is building consensus and cooperation among groups of religious students who are in religious minorities in the general university population, since a non-sectarian prayer generally is correctly interpreted as an expression of the majority religion, even if it is not explicitly stated as such. Non-sectarian prayer is not a pro-religion move, but a tyranny of the majority move.
posted by The World Famous at 6:14 PM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

mskyle understands the constitutional and legal ramifications pretty well. Ceremonies, traditions, classes, and clubs that would not pass constitutional muster at the high school level are allowed at the university level, even though both may be tax-supported. It works both ways, too-- students at public universities have greater freedom than they do at public high schools or private universities. For prayer to no longer be part of the ceremonial structure of the university, it would have to be removed by the faculty and administration with the acquiescence of the state legislature. That was how it was done in Maryland.
posted by deanc at 6:28 PM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

[Be helpful or go to MetaTalk, those are your choices.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:43 PM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would ask the regional chapter of the ACLU too. Depending on the area of the country she could be in for some hostility, but they may be able to simply write a letter without mentioning her by name.

FWIW, I'm not sure what nonsectarian means, but at a former state institution at which I worked, faculty were led in specifically Christian prayer before an in-service meal. I said something to my boss and she was completely unsupportive. I was too scared of losing my job to say anything more, but it stopped eventually so perhaps the murmuring trickled up.
posted by idb at 7:14 PM on May 4, 2012

The Secular Students Alliance is the national atheist student organizing group. Checking if there's a chapter at this campus may be a place to start, in terms of organizing to change university policies.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:18 PM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Freedom from Religion Foundation may be helpful; here's a form for submitting a complaint to them. Here's their summary of the cases which have resulted in banning prayers from public school ceremonies. Whether or not the law requires the same result for a publicly funded college as for high schools is a muddier issue -- this case involving a public military college in Virginia seems to support applying the same principles.

It may also be useful to complain to the relevant members of the state legislature, assuming that that is where the funding comes from. Members of the committees on higher education and finance should be made aware that some students find this practice objectionable, and that continuing it could expose the college to unnecessary liability. Promoting religion by sponsoring prayer is just not a legitimate function for a public educational institution.
posted by Corvid at 8:02 PM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Letter to the editor or op-ed piece is better than just complaing to some "authority". Otherwise, it's just being a tattle-tale.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:52 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it also depends on the culture of the college. My school is now state funded but when it first began it was a Methodist college back in the day. That fact is an intregal part of the school history and culture so when prayers pop up at banquets and such most students go with the flow.

You don't have to post here, but the history of the school and the tradition may play a part here. She might need to approach the ones in charge of Convocation and discuss with them first. The Student Government may be interested in taking up the case especially if she gets a group of students who are upset to approach them. If that doesn't work then seek outside help. My current institution doesn't want to look bad in the media so an interest piece by the local paper may provide enough leverage. It really depends on what motivated the institution.
posted by MultiFaceted at 8:56 PM on May 4, 2012

What country is she in?
posted by at at 9:59 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The theory is that you don't really *have* to attend the college graduation ceremony the same way you have to attend the high school graduation ceremony (which seems weak to me, but I'm not the 6th and 7th Circuits).

The really key difference is that college students are not K-12 students. College students (being overwhelmingly adults) should be better able to tell the difference between the state accommodating students' faith and the state endorsing or requiring it. As a consequence, activities that K-12 schools are not allowed to perform are commonplace at universities.

There is not much room to just complain here, because what they're doing is permitted. Instead your friend should think about ways to convince the school not to do something that it is allowed to do.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:23 PM on May 4, 2012

I mean, if the college is a land-grant college in the USA, there may be the ability to address this to the state board of regents.
posted by fifilaru at 11:03 PM on May 4, 2012

This is a tough row to hoe. In what way does a non-sectarian prayer promote the institution of religion? The Constitution was written to protect the citizenry from a government supported, and thus government run religion. Nothing in the actions here would seem to indicate that the college is instituting or promoting a government run religion. Simply admitting that there is a God by allowing a prayer has been proven in the courts to be insufficient.
posted by Gungho at 5:06 AM on May 5, 2012

[Please no tacked-on questions. Ask your own question if you need to.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:10 AM on May 5, 2012

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