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Prayer at University events is topic of debate

October 15, 2001

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the resulting military reprisals, Usama bin Laden stated that the united coalition's war on terrorism is, at its essence, a battle of religious beliefs.

According to many, Bin Laden calls the battle "a holy war" because he hopes to create a total and irreparable schism between "the East" and "the West."

Meanwhile, faculty and students on the Austin Peay campus have gathered together on several occasions for comfort-and prayer.

Those prayers have become the topic of debate, with some questioning whether such practices are a breach of civil liberties.

On Tuesday, Oct. 9, Hoppe brought the issue before the Cabinet, asking for input on whether APSU should take an official stand on public prayer at University events. Should open prayer be prohibited? Should the University invite religious leaders from the Jewish and Muslim communities to pray, as well as those who are Christian? What about avowed atheists who are offended by any prayer?

The ensuing discussion reflected the complexity and emotional nature of the debate.

Several Cabinet members pointed out that, while in session, the U.S. Congress and Tennessee legislature begin each day with prayer and that, in large part, America was established by people seeking religious freedom.

Others noted that, since colonial days, America has become the proverbial "melting pot," with an increasing number of citizens who subscribe to a religion other than Christianity.

Hoppe advised the Cabinet that APSU could be challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union for allowing public prayer. She recalled that in the mid-1990s the ACLU challenged another state university on the same issue and lost.

Dr. David Kanervo, chair of the political science department who represents the Strategic Planning Committee on the Cabinet, offered one possible explanation, saying that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that higher education institutions cannot be held to the same law as K-12, because those who attend college (or any college/university function) are not required by law to do so.

One idea proposed was that University officials draft a "universal prayer" and try to curtail spontaneous prayers that use such terminology as "in Jesus' name." But many Christians find this alternative unacceptable. A "moment of silence" at University events would be the "safe" (but some say, meaningless) route to go. And, according to Hoppe, a moment of silence also has been challenged as Constitutionally prohibitive.

Ultimately, Hoppe concluded the lengthy discussion by saying, "My responsibility is to consider all views and to make the decision I feel is in the best interest of the University without bowing to pressure from either a majority view or a minority view."

To that end, she will consult with TBR attorneys to determine if new case law has been created regarding if and how a university can allow public prayers by people of all faiths without breaching state and federal law.