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Obama’s College Speeches Spark Controversy

Greer Hannan will mark President Obama's attendance at her University of Notre Dame graduation Sunday by having a cross and a pair of baby feet printed on her mortar board. Some of her classmates plan to skip the ceremony to lead a protest across campus. The local bishop and a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican say they won't even show up to share the stage with a man who supports abortion rights.

Obama's first pass at the annual springtime rite for presidents - delivering commencement addresses at a couple of universities or colleges and one military academy - has caused controversy at two of the three schools the White House selected from dozens of invitations.

At Arizona State University, where Obama speaks Wednesday, officials have been scrambling for weeks to explain why they won't give the president an honorary degree, a routine gesture at many universities for those invited to speak on graduation day.

The biggest controversy, though, is at Notre Dame, the Roman Catholic university in South Bend, Ind., where President John Jenkins says he is "delighted" Obama is coming, but the local bishop says the invitation has caused a breach with the church.

"The American presidency is always a magnet for controversy," says Notre Dame American studies professor Robert Schmuhl. "Add to that the sense of internal religious conflict at a nationally known university and you have the combustible situation we now see."

Among those who say they are aghast at the Obama invitation:

-- Bishop John D'Arcy of the church's Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, one of more than 60 bishops who have expressed opposition to Obama's selection. D'Arcy, who has missed only one other graduation in 24 years, will skip the ceremony rather that sit on stage with Obama. He says the school's invitation to the president has caused a "terrible breach" with the church.

-- Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush. Notre Dame planned to award her its highest honor, the Laetare Medal, but she declined when she learned Obama would be given an honorary degree. She says the degree defied a request from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that Catholic institutions not honor those who oppose church positions.

-- Some Notre Dame students, such as Andrew Chronister, 22, a senior who will skip graduation to lead what he calls a "prayerful rally" instead. "One of the things my education here has prepared me for is to make these big decisions," he says. "You have to stand up for what you believe in."

-- The Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative watchdog organization that monitors Catholic universities. "The outrage over this is not a referendum on Barack Obama," says group President Patrick Reilly, who has delivered 353,000 online petition signatures to Notre Dame opposing Obama's selection. "He still maintains majority support among all Catholics. The outrage is targeted at Notre Dame for betraying its Catholic mission."

White House spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki says Obama will speak as planned. "President Obama believes commencement day is about the students, and he is looking forward to addressing the graduates at the Naval Academy, Notre Dame and Arizona State, all schools with rich traditions of fostering the exchange of ideas."

Obama will speak at the Naval Academy commencement on May 22.

Notre Dame has hosted Bush, Ronald Reagan and others who supported the death penalty and took other positions at odds with the church, but abortion is viewed as an "intrinsic evil" by the church and trying to weigh it against other issues is "inappropriate," Reilly says.

Some outside observers say the flap is more about politics than religious beliefs. Thomas Reese, of Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, says the opposition is the work of "Republican activists who think the Catholic Church should be the Republican Party of prayer."

Former Indiana Democratic congressman Tim Roemer, a Catholic who opposes abortion and got his graduate degrees from Notre Dame, says Obama has promoted a "culture of life" by banning torture, working to end the Iraq war, pressing to expand health care coverage and developing a "just" immigration system.

"Notre Dame has a proud and longtime tradition of honoring presidents of both parties," Roemer says. "And Obama has consistently extended his hand to the faith community."

In Tempe, Ariz., meanwhile, Arizona State University officials have created what one professor calls a public relations mess with conflicting explanations about why Obama will not receive an honorary degree.

The school's spokeswoman, Sharon Keeler, initially said Obama - who earned his own Harvard Law School degree in 1991 - hadn't established enough of a "body of work" yet to warrant a degree.

ASU President Michael Crow says that's not the case. He says the school has had a policy since 2003 not to give honorary degrees to donors and sitting politicians, but the school is thrilled to have Obama deliver the commencement address at Sun Devil Stadium. To honor the president, Crow says, the school has named a scholarship program after him. "His election is a fantastic historical turning point," he says.

The flap about the degree was "a public relations blunder," ASU political science professor Marilyn Dantico says. "Everyone is thrilled that Barack Obama is coming to Arizona State."

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