Notre Dame Divided By Obama Invitation

In South Bend, Indiana, an upcoming appearance by President Barack Obama is roiling the campus. Opponents of the invitation to Obama say the president's support for abortion rights contradicts the teachings of the Catholic Church.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Among the many commencement ceremonies this season none is getting more attention than Notre Dame's. This weekend, President Obama will give the commencement address at the nation's preeminent Catholic university. The president's support of abortion rights has angered some members of the Notre Dame community and anti-abortion activists. NPR's David Schaper sets the scene for us from South Bend, Indiana.

DAVID SCHAPER: In a steady rain, around 40 anti-abortion protesters set up camp just outside the main entrance to the University of Notre Dame campus. They help up graphic abortion photos and signs denouncing the university for inviting President Obama here and awarding him an honorary degree. At least 21 were arrested when they marched onto campus. Meanwhile, a steady stream of proud parents drove on past to attend pre-commencement activities and to celebrate with the graduates who have survived the long, hard nights of cramming and sweating through exams to make it to this day.

Ms. EMILY TOTES(ph) (Notre Dame Graduate) This is a huge for me.

SCHAPER: Emily Totes, a mechanical engineering major from Dallas, admits it's been a struggle at times. Standing on the campus quad, she proudly holds her graduation robes, cap and tassel. Though Totes says she's long looked forward to her graduation day, she won't participate in Sunday's ceremony.

Ms. TOTES: A lot of the things Obama's done, I really don't feel comfortable going to a celebration of him.

SCHAPER: Totes will instead join other boycotting graduates and their families at a prayer vigil for life on campus Sunday because of President Obama's support for abortion rights.

Ms. TOTES: As a Catholic university, when we invite him to our home and give him an award, we are in a sense endorsing what he's done and honoring him for his actions. And I'm not okay with that. I love this place because it's Catholic. I love what it stands for, and I think by inviting President Obama and honoring his actions, we're going against the Catholic principles we're founded upon.

SCHAPER: Some other students who also oppose Mr. Obama's views on abortion say they will attend commencement, but will wear white crosses with tiny footprints on the mortarboard of their caps in silent protest. At least 70 Catholic bishops nationwide have denounced Notre Dame for inviting the president, including the bishop of the local diocese who is refusing to attend.

But Notre Dame's president, the Reverend John Jenkins, said in a statement that the university's position opposing abortion is clear and the invitation to President Obama does not imply the school supports his view. Notre Dame's valedictorian, Brendan Bowlman(ph), says she feels honored to share the podium Sunday with President Obama. She argues that while the president supports abortion rights, he approaches the issue of life more holistically.

Ms. BRENDAN BOWLMAN (Notre Dame Graduate, Valedictorian): Working to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, working to protect mothers and working to provide resources so that people can be good mothers. I think that his social policies are important and working just to allow all people to be able to support life.

SCHAPER: Bowlman's support of the president is shared by many students and faculty at Notre Dame. The editors of the campus newspaper say that 70 percent of the letters to the editor support the university's decision to invite the president. And 95 percent of the letters from graduating seniors support him. Bowlman says that if Notre Dame didn't allow anyone with a viewpoint different than the church's speak hereā€¦

Ms. BOWLMAN: It wouldn't be a real university. Any thoughtful, reasonable perspective should be heard at a university.

(Soundbite of airplane)

SCHAPER: Circling high above the quad of the Notre Dame campus is a small plane carrying behind it a huge banner with the picture of what appears to be an aborted fetus and sign reading behind it: 10 week abortion. Students say this plane has been circling campus every day for a couple of weeks now.

Ms. MARIA MARCHILERO(ph) (Notre Dame Student): A lot of students are kind of annoyed with it.

SCHAPER: Maria Marchilero and many other students criticize the outsiders for stirring up the conflict over President Obama's visit. Even many of those opposed to abortion have asked the anti-abortion groups to tone it down. They don't want controversy to over-shadow a day that is really about the graduates and what they have achieved. David Schaper, NPR News in South Bend, Indiana.

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