[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/15/intv.toates.art.jpg caption="CNN's Kiran Chetry speaks to a Notre Dame senior who is boycotting graduation over President Obama's speech."]
(CNN) - President Obama this weekend will become the ninth sitting U.S. president to deliver the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, but none of the others has touched off the firestorm of Obama's appearance.
At issue is the president's pro-choice abortion belief, which runs counter to the Catholic Church's official pro-life stance, and his support for federal funding of stem-cell research.
One person who was supposed to be going to commencement but is not is Notre Dame senior Emily Toates. She feels so strongly about the university's decision to invite the president in spite of his views on abortion, she's organized a group to boycott her own graduation. Toates spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Friday.
Kiran Chetry: The president will deliver the commencement address. He got an honorary degree from the school. You feel so strongly about that situation that you're not going to attend your graduation? Tell us more about why?
Emily Toates: Well, I was really sad to hear that the university invited President Obama to speak. While it's an honor to have the president come, Obama's stance on certain life issues go against the Catholic teachings. I do not feel comfortable going and celebrating him as the university hands him an honorary degree, in a sense honoring his policies. I didn’t feel comfortable going and standing there and standing beside that – clapping while we did that.
Chetry: How is it shaking down at your school? How many students are supporting this move and how many are against it?
Toates: Well it's a difficult situation. This has caused a bit of division on the campus. But it also has created a lot of... discussion on these issues. I think there's a few camps - there's those strongly against it, those strongly for it, but there’s a lot of people in the middle that really aren't sure how they feel about this. Maybe they disagree with Obama on certain issues but don't really understand how this impacts him giving a speech on campus. So this has created a lot of opportunity for discussion, education. I'm working with "ND Response" and we’ve used this as an opportunity to discus these issues, brought some great speakers to campus, to really talk about this and why this matters.
Chetry: It's interesting you brought it up because your president John Jenkins said the invitation for Obama to speak doesn't imply that the school supports all of his positions when it comes to abortion and stem-cell research but he did say it provides “a basis for further positive engagement.” Are you worried that if you boycott this you send a message – if you disagree with the church's teachings, we're not going to engage you?
Toates: I feel if he was invited in another context, we would not have this problem. If he was invited to a town hall meeting, a panel discussion, something where we were actually discussing these issues and positively engaging, then I wouldn't have a problem with it. I would go and would want to hear what he has to say and dialogue with him. The problem is that a commencement isn’t the context for a dialogue. He's going to be standing up on the stage speaking to us in our seats. There isn't that opportunity for dialogue. And as we hand him that honorary degree, it becomes an endorsement for him.
Chetry: It’s interesting because you probably worked hard these four years and getting that diploma at graduation is something we all look forward to after working hard after four years in college. Are you worried that you’re going to look back and regret you chose not to attend your own graduation?
Toates: I don't think so. Right now, I'm feeling pretty confident in my decision. I'm standing up for something I believe really strongly in. I am fortunate though, Notre Dame does a kind of two-part graduation. I'm graduating with my department on Saturday, which is where we actually walk across the stage, receive the diploma, move our tassels. The graduation on Sunday is a group event... It's a group graduation, there’s no individual recognition at that. So I will get the opportunity to receive the diploma, walk across the stage, and be there with my classmates. And then I’m going to participate in the "ND Response" class of '09 "Vigil for Life," which we’re holding during commencement. It’s going to be a prayer service and an opportunity to celebrate life and our last four years here. It’s going to be a smaller, more intimate ceremony but I think it’s going to be very meaningful.