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Lack of graduation prayer irks GOP

The officials at Pasco-Hernando Community College were taken aback by the one-page missive:

"Please be advised that (it) has come to our attention that PHCC has discontinued having an invocation at the PHCC graduation ceremonies," read the letter, signed by the local GOP's top three officials earlier this week. "The Republican Party of Pasco has unanimously adopted a resolution opposing this policy and encouraging you to reinstate the invocation at all graduation ceremonies."

College officials said they haven't had an invocation in at least a decade — and know of no student complaints or decision by administrators or trustees to get rid of the prayer.

"I don't remember an invocation at graduation," said board Vice Chairwoman Judy Parker, a Republican who was first appointed in 1999 by Gov. Jeb Bush. "It's been a nonissue."

The ceremonies typically feature the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner and what officials call "Reflections on the Occasion," a speech that may or may not include religious references.

The speaker at Wednesday's commencement exercises, professor Richard Downing, talked about friendships among people of different backgrounds.

College spokeswoman Lucy Miller said complaints about the ceremony are typically about seating or parking.

"Commencement is the high point of our year and we take it very seriously," she said. "The whole program is very thoughtfully put together."

So what prompted the letter from local Republicans? Bill Bunting, a state committeeman who signed the letter, said a PHCC student brought the matter to his attention. That student, who wants to remain anonymous, told him the college indeed had invocations in recent years.

But then, Bunting said, "Only one person objected to it, and it was removed. From hearsay, the guy was an atheist."

Bunting, who is Catholic, said "In Pasco County, you can't go a quarter of a mile without passing a church. … These are God-fearing people and they knew the Constitution included God."

He raised the issue at a Republican Party meeting last month. In the crowd was Republican and PHCC trustee Gary Worthley, who stood up front and fielded questions.

Worthley said he wasn't certain about the history of the invocation issue but had a idea of what had happened.

"It's my understanding that they did have a prayer at one time and they don't anymore," said Worthley, an appointee of Gov. Charlie Crist. "I certainly know how I felt about it. I do think we should have one. … Our country was founded on a religious background. We get all our rights from God."

The letter suggests PHCC use an invocation with a nondenominational reference to God, and anyone who opposes the prayer "could leave and return when the invocation is over."

Bunting said the letter, which he signed along with Pasco GOP Chairman Randy Maggard and state committeewoman Lona O'Reilly, may serve as a "red flag" to trustees.

"Colleges have a way of slipping things by without the trustees knowing," he said.

He said the party wants trustees to take the matter into their hands. "It's their responsibility to deal with it," he said.

And if they don't?

Bunting said that if Republican Bill McCollum is elected governor, the party may take its concerns to him when it's time to appoint the college's trustees.

"In this county, we feel very strongly about that," Bunting said. "And we will let the governor know that."

The board of trustees includes some prominent local Republicans, including Parker, who is the wife of School Board member Frank Parker; cardiologist Rao Musunuru; former school superintendent Tom Weightman; and Pasco Economic Development Council Chairman Wilton Simpson.

So would Bunting, whose wife, Ann, teaches at PHCC, challenge any of their re-appointments?

"Well, that would go up to the board," he said. "I'm not looking to knock anybody down. I'm just saying, 'Hey, this is America.' "

Worthley said he had no problem with local Republicans making an issue over the prayer. "You get threats from the liberal side, too," he said.

Parker said she did not plan to bring up the matter at the next trustees meting, which typically opens with a moment of silence.

"I think things are fine the way they are because we have a group, a (graduation) committee that gets together and tries to evaluate things from year to year," she said. "That's why we're there; to celebrate their (students') accomplishments."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Lack of graduation prayer irks GOP 05/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 8:52pm]
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