A Christian college in Wisconsin has backtracked on having Vice President Mike Pence deliver its commencement address, citing “escalating events” in nearby Kenosha, where protests have been taking place over the police shooting of another Black man.
Lutheran College in Milwaukee announced Thursday that after “careful consideration,” it had decided to invite Rev. Mark Jeske, the pastor of a local church, to speak at Saturday’s graduation instead of Pence.
Pence’s press secretary, Devin O’Malley, told CNN that the vice president “understands and supports” the college’s decision to “prioritize the safety and well-being of their students.”
When it announced last week that Pence would speak at commencement, the college insisted it was not endorsing the Republican Party and that the ceremony “cannot” be viewed as a political event.
“We believe it is possible within our context to leave partisan politics at the door and to celebrate America, our freedoms, Christian servant leadership and our graduates’ immense accomplishments,” the college said in a statement, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Inviting Pence to speak proved to be controversial among the college’s community. More than 260 alumni and current students signed an open letter denouncing the invitation as “blatantly inappropriate” and “deceptive.”
“Speaking to young adults months before an election is a political move and not one that WLC can decide is apolitical,” stated the letter, which was written before the recent unrest in Kenosha.
The alumni also called President Donald Trump’s administration “divisive and degrading.”
“As a governor and now as the vice president, Mike Pence has failed to promote policies that reflect Christian values,” the alumni wrote.
Speaking to graduates of Wisconsin’s Lutheran College would have been Pence’s second visit to the swing state this month.
The small private college, located about one hour north of Kenosha, is affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, a theologically conservative denomination. The school postponed its May graduation ceremony because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Along with canceling Pence’s appearance, the college said Thursday that its community is praying for “justice and peace” after a police officer shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times earlier this week. Blake has been paralyzed, according to his family and attorney.
The incident sparked protests across the country. In Kenosha, two anti-racism protesters were fatally shot Tuesday night during a confrontation with armed white vigilantes.
“WLC stands with our community leaders and partners and recognizes that serious changes need to take place within our country, region, and our cities,” school president Daniel W. Johnson said in a statement. “Racism and systemic inequities in access to education, justice, and other aspects of society are unacceptable.”
Pence did not address systemic racism or police brutality while briefly commenting on the Kenosha protests during his address at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday.
“Rioting and looting is not peaceful protest; tearing down statues is not free speech,” he said. “Those who do so will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
“Let me be clear, the violence must stop, whether in Minneapolis, Portland, or Kenosha,” Pence said.
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