Prayer Returning to Ole Miss Student Government?

Attend any meeting of the Ole Miss Associated Student Body Senate (ASB), and you may notice the opening moment of silence.

Two years ago, the senate began its meetings with prayer, but that didn’t sit well with two of its members

Asma Al-Sherri and Dan Blazo were two ASB senators who, because they did not hold Christian beliefs, brought the issue to the attention of the university’s judicial council.

Melinda Pullen Carlson, Associate Dean of Students

Melinda Pullen Carlson, Associate Dean of Students

According to Associate Dean of Students Melinda Pullen Carlson, these students felt excluded.

“I don’t believe that it’s the act of praying that necessarily is inflammatory,” she said. “It’s when that prayer becomes a part of the business operations or the day to day operations for the organization that it becomes exclusionary, and that’s where the problem begins.”

The Ole Miss M Book is a short list of regulations, and it requires student organizations to know, and comply with, university policies. This policy  is a blanket regulation that states that the university receives federal money and, therefore, cannot discriminate. Student organizations are in violation of this policy if they require members to participate in religious activities, such as prayer, unless the organization was founded specifically to include members of a certain faith.

University policy aside, there are arguments for having prayer in ASB senate meetings.

“We already say the Pledge of Allegiance, and that contains God. There’s not really an argument against that,” said Richard Wilkins, former ASB senator.

Richard Wilkins, former ASB Senator

Richard Wilkins, former ASB Senator

“On top of that, our United States Congress has a prayer to open every session. I believe that if the governing body of our nation deems it okay to open every legislative session with a prayer, then I believe the governing body of the University of Mississippi should open every session with prayer.”

Since the students who opposed the practice have now graduated, the senate has tried unsuccessfully to reinstate prayer. This year, senate committee members began talks to write legislation to reinstate prayer, but decided against the legislation after being reminded of the judicial council’s decision in the past.

Finding a balance in this issue is not easy. While not commenting specifically on this case, Ole Miss law professor Lisa Roy spoke in general about religion and the U.S. Constitution.

“It is precisely because there are asserted constitutional freedoms on both sides (i.e., the freedom to be free from the imposition of religion v. the freedom to practice religion publicly) that neither side wants to give in,” Roy said.

This does not mean, though, that if all students in an organization happen to practice the same faith, that they cannot engage in religious observance.

“If they are all in a consensus and everybody’s okay with it, then there is no reason for us to really say ‘you can’t do this,’” said Ole Miss Judicial Chair Courtney Pearson. “But what really is important when we step in is when you start offending someone.”

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~ by Norman on April 17, 2012.

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