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UCLA confirms student can thank Jesus in graduation statement

ADF attorneys sent letter to chancellor, warning that censoring student’s religious expression is unconstitutional
Published On: 10/18/2017

LOS ANGELES — Officials from the University of California, Los Angeles, confirmed Tuesday that they will permit a Christian student’s graduation statement to include a word of thanks to Jesus Christ after first saying they would not allow the sentence.  Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom urged officials in a letter Friday afternoon to refrain from violating her free speech rights.  The student, Christina Popa, received a voice mail from the school Friday evening that her statement will be read verbatim during the June 13 commencement ceremony.

“Christian students shouldn’t be silenced when expressing their beliefs at public universities and are entitled to the same rights as all other students,” said ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Heather Gebelin Hacker.  “We are pleased that UCLA officials understand that denying religious liberty to students is a violation of the First Amendment, not a requirement of it.  A personal statement at a graduation ceremony is exactly that--personal--and in no way signifies an endorsement of religion by the school.  We commend UCLA for acting quickly to protect Ms. Popa’s constitutional rights.”

On May 21, Dr. Pamela Hurley, student affairs advisor for the Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology Department at UCLA, e-mailed all graduating students to collect short personal statements from them that she would read as they crossed the stage to receive their degree at the June 13 department commencement ceremony.  Hurley informed students that the statements, called “Words of Wisdom,” could contain “almost anything,” including expressions of gratitude, UCLA experiences, family acknowledgements, favorite quotes, etc.  She added that some of the most memorable statements were “fanciful” or “outrageously wild,” but suggested that students bypass political, derogatory, or “specific religious expression.”

Popa opened her proposed statement with, “I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” before thanking her deceased father and other family members for their encouragement, and closed with her future career plans.

Hurley responded in an e-mail that UCLA observes the “separation of church and state,” and that instead of reading, ‘I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,’ Hurley would only allow, ‘First, I want to thank God.’”  When Popa objected, Hurley said the only other option was to read none of Popa’s comments at the ceremony.

After ADF attorneys wrote to the school over the matter on Friday afternoon, Popa received a voice mail on Friday evening saying that she would be allowed to read her comments as originally written.  The university confirmed this by letter Tuesday.

The ADF Center for Academic Freedom defends religious freedom at America’s public universities.  ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith.  Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.

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