ACLU Accuses MSU of Violating Religious Rights

By Beacon Staff

HAVRE – The ACLU of Montana is asking the state Board of Regents to investigate whether the invocation and benediction given during the Montana State University-Northern graduation ceremony unconstitutionally promoted the Christian faith.

Betsy Griffing, the group’s legal director, said it received complaints from faculty members that Pastor Tim Zerger of the Community Alliance Church repeatedly referred to Jesus as a personal savior during the graduation on May 8.

“Separation of church and state is a cornerstone of the U.S. and Montana constitutions,” Griffing said Tuesday. “The ability to practice any or no faith at all goes to the essence of what it means to be a free person. MSU-Northern showed poor judgment and a lack of respect for its students, faculty and staff by overtly endorsing one specific religion at its graduation.”

Zerger said Wednesday that he had not seen the ACLU complaint, but acknowledged that as a Christian minister, his invocation and benediction certainly were Christian-based.

“I have given lots of invocations and benedictions,” he said. “It was pretty orthodox stuff.”

Leslie Taylor, chief legal counsel for Montana State University in Bozeman, said campus administrators are looking into the issue.

Cathy Swift, legal counsel for the Montana university system, said there is no Board of Regents policy on such a matter. Taylor said MSU doesn’t have a specific policy on having a pastor speak at graduation.

The ACLU said some faculty members noted that school policy requires they attend graduation and they were thus forced to listen to the invocation and benediction.

“The minister in question was definitely proselytizing and was very forceful in his convictions and manner of speech,” Janet Tretheway, a professor, said in an ACLU statement. “I can see where someone who is of another faith or a nonbeliever could be offended.”

MSU-Northern Chancellor Frank Trocki was not available to comment Wednesday.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who spoke at the graduation, declined to comment through a spokeswoman.