UCLA Student Permitted to Refer to Jesus in Graduation Statement

By June 10, 2009

The AP reported yesterday that the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has backed away from its earlier decision to forbid a student from referring to Jesus in a personal statement to be read during her departmental graduation. As the article reported:

Student Christina Popa’s statement read, in part, "I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

The student affairs adviser for the department objected to the Jesus reference and asked her to substitute it with "I want to thank God" instead, according to the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious-freedom group that took up Popa’s cause.

When Popa protested, the administrator told her the only other option would be to forego any statement, the ADF said.

You can read more about the case and see some of the source documents at the Alliance Defense Fund’s website.

The critical issue in this case is whether UCLA’s process in which personal statements were prepared by every individual student but read out loud by an administrator leads to an inference that UCLA "endorses" the views in those statements.

Indeed, the possibility that a reasonable person could believe that UCLA endorsed the views contained in the statements provides the only possible permissible rationale for UCLA’s decision to change the reference in Popa’s statement from "my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" to "God." (Presumably, UCLA did not wish to change the statement due to a wish to express some sort of institutional belief in God but not Jesus.)         

However, as common sense would indicate, it doesn’t appear that confusing the students’ individual views for those of UCLA is a realistic possibility. In her letter [PDF], ADF attorney (and former FIRE legal intern) Heather Gebelin Hacker points out that the administrator making the decision, Dr. Pamela Hurley, herself suggested that some of the most memorable statements were "fanciful" or "outrageously wild." Since it seems unlikely that anyone could reasonably believe that UCLA or the State of California officially endorses "outrageously wild" statements, it’s not really plausible that a reasonable person would believe that the state was officially endorsing Jesus either in this context.

UCLA does not have to allow students to have a personal statement read for them at graduation. But since it does, it makes no sense and is probably unconstitutional to censor such statements along religious lines. UCLA should be commended for quickly coming around to the conclusion that more freedom is preferable to less.

Schools: University of California, Los Angeles