Word of the situation came from an Internet posting by Gordon Klingenschmitt, the former Navy chaplain who was removed from the military in a dispute over the use of Jesus' name in his prayers.
"This is another example of the improper application of separation of church and state," he told WND. "As a government school, UCLA cannot prohibit religious expression. They're the ones crossing the line here."
The school, in a later statement, confirmed it had reviewed its procedures and would read the statements as submitted by students, after "making clear" that it was understood that it is not a university statement.
The posting revealed an e-mail exchange for a submission by student Christina Popa to faculty adviser Pamela Hurley of her "personal statement" for graduation.The statements are submitted by students, but eventually are read by faculty.
Klingenschmitt said he'd talked with Popa and she was not making any further public statements on the dispute at this time. WND messages left via telephone and sent via e-mail to Hurley were not returned.
The university, however, did release a statement explaining the reading of the "words of wisdom" is done by a member of the school administration.
"Because the reading is by the university, not the students, to avoid the appearance that the university was advocating one religion over the other, guidelines were established so that messages would not include references to particular religions," the school stated. "The department and the university support the First Amendment and in no way intended to impinge upon any students' rights.
"Thus, upon review, and recognizing that the intent of the ceremony is for all students to have a chance to say something at graduation, the department will continue to make clear to the audience that the statements are the personal statements of each student and will read statements as originally submitted by the students," the school said.
Hurley's e-mail response to Popa had said, "UCLA is a public university where the doctrine of separation of church and state is observed, in order to respect the sheer diversity of religious beliefs among the people who come here. Since that is so, we do permit MCDB graduates to thank God in their words of wisdom, but we also ask that they refrain from making more specific religious references of any kind."
She continued: "In this setting, even I would not personally be comfortable reading: 'I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.' Therefore, I need to let you know that I will read your Words of Wisdom as follows: First, I want to thank God….
"I hope that you can be okay with the above, given all the circumstances that exist," the e-mail said.
Klingenschmitt, who had assembled a petition on his website on the issue, faced punishment over the use of the name of Jesus in prayers and still is pursuing a court action seeking reinstatement.
His petition on Popa's behalf said: "We the undersigned, respectfully express our shock and dismay, at the anti-Christian discrimination by UCLA Biology Professor Pamela Hurley, who has directly refused the rights of graduating student Christina Popa, who wants to say 'I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,' in her own pre-graduation speech…
"We pray that UCLA will stop censoring students' right to freedom of religious expression. … We pray that Christina Popa will be allowed the right she earned, to give thanks to Jesus Christ at her own graduation."
Popa had responded with a follow-up e-mail that since her thanks to Jesus were being censored, she has learned "UCLA officials do not understand what diversity and respect really means."
"I am not offended because it's 'my faith' but because UCLA is censoring my freedom of speech, which is unconstitutional in the United States," she wrote.
The adviser responded with an implied threat.
"If you prefer, Christina, I can read none of what you wrote."
"UCLA is not censoring your freedom of speech. This is not UCLA policy, or College policy … this is Department of Molecular, Cell & Developmental Biology policy," she continued. "I have already stated to you directly already (sic) that I would not be comfortable reading specific religious references, such as the ones you submitted … or to any other avatar…"
Since being removed from the military, Klingenschmitt has fought repeatedly for the right to pray in Jesus name, including a battle in Virginia over a state regulation that state trooper chaplains there no longer can pray in Jesus' name.