Seeking to quell a mounting controversy, East Carolina University officials announced Tuesday that there would be no limits on religious references at its graduation ceremonies after a chemistry professor told his students that they were not allowed to thank God for earning their diplomas.
The university released a statement “clarifying that there are not constraints on religious references” after Assistant Professor Eli Hvastkovs sent students an email Thursday telling them not to thank God in their personal statements at the department’s graduation ceremony.
“You can’t thank God — I’m sorry about this — and I don’t want to have to outline the reasons why,” said Mr. Hvastkovs in the May 1 email that was obtained and posted online by the conservative group Campus Reform.
Dr. Hvastkovs later defended his email, telling Campus Reform that the graduation exercise is “not a religious ceremony,” but Provost Marilyn Sheerer issued a statement telling students to disregard the professor’s prohibition.
“I have confirmed with the Chair of the Department of Chemistry that students may submit personal statements, up to 35 words, to be read during the departmental ceremony,” said Dr. Sheerer in her statement. “These statements can be your personal expressions and as such the university will only limit these expressions, as permitted by applicable First Amendment law.”
The Greenville, North Carolina, university later explained that allowing students to read personal statements “creates a forum for student expression.”
“As such, the university regrets that, without approval from the appropriate university officials, other limitations and instructions were communicated to participating students in one department,” said the Tuesday statement on the university’s web page.
In an interview with Campus Reform after the news broke, Dr. Hvastkovs said he issued his edict — which he said only applied the department’s own ceremony — because too many students had expressed gratitude to God during the 2013 ceremony.
“It’s not a religious ceremony,” he said. “It’s purely educational.”
Although the university quickly backtracked, the professor was not spared some harsh commentary from critics over his original email.
“I’m curious as to how Professor Hvastkovs might be disciplined as a result of his actions,” wrote blogger “Mockarena” at the ChicksOnTheRight.com blog. “My guess is that he won’t be. At the very least, he ought to take a remedial civics course so that he can understand how his personal desires don’t trump the First Amendment.”