Colorado Mesa University officials demanded that a student remove references to God, Jesus and the Bible in her graduation speech to fellow nursing students, but quickly reversed course after a Christian legal defense group protested the censorship.
Karissa Erickson was chosen by her classmates to speak at today's pinning ceremony, which is a separate graduation celebration for the nursing program. According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit based in Scottsdale, Arizona, Erickson's speech included mentions of God and Jesus and closed with a Bible verse about overcoming adversity.
When CMU nursing faculty reviewed the speech, they ordered her to remove the references "because someone might be offended," according to a letter the alliance sent to CMU President Tim Foster and other university officials on May 4.
The alliance's letter stated that university officials wanted to change Erickson's speech because of the "negative publicity" from a 2015 dust-up with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which criticized the university for allowing Gideon Bibles to be offered to students at the pinning ceremony. The practice was discontinued.
The alliance's letter cited Erickson's accounts of the interactions with nursing faculty and department leaders, including a threat of "repercussions" if she included references to her faith in the speech. Erickson could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Four days after the Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter stating that CMU was violating Erickson's right to free speech and urging a different decision, the university reversed course.
Alliance attorney Travis Barham said while the university's initial censorship was wrong, he's pleased that officials responded swiftly.
"When they were confronted with what the law required, they quickly backtracked and allowed the student to speak freely," Barham said. "I am genuinely impressed the university corrected its actions so quickly."
CMU spokeswoman Dana Nunn said university faculty were "trying to do the right thing, but made a mistake" in telling Erickson to remove religious references.
"It was a well-intentioned misunderstanding of what was appropriate," Nunn said. "I think it's fair to say that a lot of people have their own interpretations of the separation of church and state, and the faculty member that initially asked for the change was just trying to do the right thing, she was just not correct legally."
Nunn said she could not speak to the alliance's claims that Erickson was threatened with "repercussions," but that there is no university ban on talking about religion.
"It was a well-intentioned and honest error but an error nonetheless. As soon as the error came to our attention, we did our best to correct it," Nunn said.
Barham said it's very common for universities to run into First Amendment tangles, including in graduation speeches.
"This sort of thing pops up with alarming frequency, where university officials come under the mistaken conclusion that the First Amendment requires them to purge all speech of anything that's religious," Barham said. "They think they're fulfilling the commands of the First Amendment, but they're actually violating it."