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May 05, 2014 10:48 PM EDT

Professor Bans Students From Thanking God At Graduation Ceremony

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A professor at East Carolina University in North Carolina is banning his students from thanking God in their graduation statements, Campus Reform reported.

Eli Hvastkovs, assistant professor of chemistry, is forbidding his students from thanking God in personal statements that will be delivered during their departmental graduation ceremony on Friday.

He instructed his chemistry students to prepare a "family friendly" 35-word statement that mentions future plans, Campus Reform reported, citing an email Hvastkovs sent to chemistry students on May 1.

"I've had some submissions that needed to be edited. so [sic] here are some guidelines," the email reads. "1. You can't thank God. I'm sorry about this - and I don't want to have to outline the reasons why."

Hvastkovs told Campus Reform he sent the email banning giving thanks to God after too many students recognized religious figures during last year's event.

"It's not a religious ceremony," Hvastkovs said. "it's purely educational."

The ban is not a school policy.

"It's more of a departmental thing, we have a diverse student body," he said.

The university's Executive Director of Communication Mary Schulken told Campus Reform that students are allow to thank God during the campus-wide graduation because "the First Amendment allows them ... to thank any force or any individual that they so desire."

Shortly after Hvastkovs's interview with Campus Reform, Marilyn Sheerer, the East Carolina University's provost, released an email advising students disregard Hvastkovs's guidelines.

Sheerer told students that "[r]eligious references of any type will not be restricted," and the "[u]niversity will only limit these expressions, as permitted by applicable First Amendment law."

East Carolina University is a public, coeducational, doctoral/research university in Greenville, N.C. It is the third-largest university in North Carolina and the fastest-growing campus in the University of North Carolina system for six consecutive years.

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