Separation of Church and Penn State

A field trip is planned. The trip will take approximately 100 students to the nation’s capital over the course of a weekend. This field trip is mandatory for any student taking one of four classes. The purpose of the trip is to get a first hand look at certain industries and apply topics learned in class to locations the group will be visiting. Those attending the field trip will stay at a much more luxurious hotel than what you’d expect from a typical Holiday Inn or Days Inn. Companies are generously inviting the students to observe their work and even providing financial means for the students’ meals to ensure the experience is top-notch.

Sounds lovely, right?

But when a professor lists a religious service as a part of the field trip itinerary, a question comes to mind: Is this legal?

According to the trip itinerary, the class will be spending roughly 30 minutes observing the cathedral. Afterward, the itinerary clearly lists Holy Eucharist as the next activity on the trip. The professor claims the service is for educational purposes. However, observing a cathedral is one thing. Attending a religious service is another.

Keep in mind that this class is not a theology, nor a religious studies class. The demographics of this group of students are extraordinarily diverse. The backgrounds of these students vary from family income, sexual orientation, and the place they call home between semesters. That being said, a multitude of religions are also represented.

I am a student who is uncomfortable with the idea of Penn State students attending a religious service on a non-religious field trip.

It’s not that I’m an inconsiderate fool who stubbornly condemns views other than my own. I enjoy meeting new people and I do my best to take advantage of what diversity is offered at this university. With regards to religion, I’ve attended services before. But these were instances when I chose to attend myself.

I’m simply perturbed by this particular activity on the field trip itinerary because it seems to me that a Penn State professor is using his authority within the university in violation of separation of church and state. Separation of church and state, as a reminder, is granted by the first amendment of the constitution.

According to Ian Smith, a staff attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, it is generally considered a violation of the first amendment for the government to require any person to go to church against his or her will. Smith says if the professor does not provide an alternate assignment or does not allow a student to opt out of the service, the professor stands on shaky legal grounds. Out of curiosity, I contacted the Spiritual Center and was told by the representative there that he did not know if there was a university policy regarding my situation.

A student attending the field trip did in fact ask the professor in charge to be excused from the Holy Eucharist via e-mail. At the end of a rather morally intensive response from the professor, the student was exempt from attending the service.

This is the Pennsylvania State University. We would not be Penn State without the “State.” Having a group of students submissively attend a religious service should not be tolerated — especially not at one of the largest public institutions in the nation. This is an abomination, and it bothers me to no avail.

Here’s the bottom line: Some professors may be overstepping boundaries in order to produce what they perceive as perfect Penn State graduates. As written in our alma mater, “thou didst mold us, Dear Old State.”

To object to religiously specific activities in a non-religious class setting should not make a student that guy/girl who bitches about everything. In my opinion, none of these students should attend the service on Sunday. However, I do realize that many of these students may be apprehensive to confront the professor in charge. Sure, these professors may or may not have the power to swing your grade in the course from an A- to B+, or refuse that letter of recommendation, but instead of the alma mater lyric mentioned above, I prefer to subscribe to another motto emphasized at Penn State: Success with Honor.

The preceding opinion post was written anonymously for the purpose of protecting the identity of the individuals involved. Due to the technical limitations of our site, this was posted under the “staff” byline, however, the contents of the post do not reflect the position of the entire Onward State staff. 

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Posts from the all-student staff of Onward State.

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