UPLAND, Ind. — Dozens of graduates and faculty at Taylor University walked out of graduation exercises Saturday morning minutes before the introduction of Vice President Mike Pence, who delivered the Christian liberal arts school's commencement address.
In caps and gowns, the students and faculty rose and quietly walked down the aisle and out of the auditorium in the Kesler Student Activities Center at Taylor.
The protest, planned and discussed prior to Saturday’s ceremony, comes after faculty and students at the nondenominational Christian liberal arts school debated the appropriateness of the vice president at the commencement ceremony.
Most of Taylor's graduating class remained seated for the vice president, who received a standing ovation after the planned walkout.
Pence used the commencement address to urge a religious resolve among the Christian school’s graduates and faculty.
“Throughout most of our American history it’s been pretty easy to call yourself a Christian, but things are different now,” Pence said. “Lately, it’s become acceptable, even fashionable, to malign traditional Christian beliefs.”
He devoted other parts of his address to the Trump administration’s message on the state of the economy, the nation’s number of job openings and its low unemployment rate.
The day was exciting for graduate Emmanuel Boateng: “I know that on campus the emotions range from very positive to not very positive. No one dreams that way. But despite our differences, the whole entire campus has come to celebrate together."
Graduate Laura Rathburn was one of the students who took a different view. Prior to the ceremony, she said she planned to walk out in protest of Pence as speaker.
Rathburn had decorated the top of her graduation cap in rainbow colors and put a message on top that said, "Ally Visible For Those Who Can't Be.” Rathburn said she was disappointed in Taylor’s decision to involve Pence in the ceremony.
“I thought it was a really inappropriate decision. I think his presence makes it difficult for everyone at Taylor to feel welcomed,” she said.
Some graduates and faculty members wore stickers on their robes and hats that said, "We are Taylor too" in protest of Pence's presence. The stickers were made by faculty in the school's social work department.
Pence is the first U.S. executive branch official to speak at the small Christian school of about 2,500. Four hundred and ninety-four women and men graduated Saturday.
Pence's appearance at Taylor's spring commencement elicited strong reactions among the university's faculty, students and alumni ahead of Saturday's graduation ceremony.
Thousands signed competing Change.org petitions — one asking the university to rescind the vice president's invitation to speak and the other voicing support for the school's decision.
Some critics told IndyStar they would not be opposed to the former Indiana governor speaking at the school under different circumstances. Many stressed their opposition had nothing to do with Pence being a Christian, per se.
Rather, they said, it was the university's lack of faculty or student input, concerns that his presence endorses a specific political or religious view or the matter of Pence's affiliation with President Donald Trump, who some say doesn't represent the Christian values central to the university's mission.
Amid the mixed feelings within the Taylor community, however, several people interviewed by IndyStar during the weeks leading up to his address said the controversy at the school was probably overblown.
Pence has had a busy commencement schedule this spring, having spoken last Saturday at another Christian school, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he warned graduates to "be ready" to face intolerance of their faith from Hollywood, the media and the secular left.
The vice president will give another address next Saturday, when he'll speak before graduating U.S. Army cadets at West Point in New York.
Follow Alexandria Burris on Twitter: @allyburris
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Dozens walk out before Mike Pence's commencement address at Taylor University