Cap, Gown & Individual Freedom: Court Bars Majority-Rules Prayer At Graduation In Indiana

Every year around this time, public schools across the country insist that a formal act of worship must be included in graduation ceremonies.

This past weekend, I attended my sister’s graduation ceremony at the University of Michigan, where President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address.

The Ann Arbor ceremony included a variety of speeches welcoming the students, their families and the president. Some speeches were inspiring, others were congratulatory and most contained a good deal of school spirit. (Being a Buckeye myself, hearing “Go Blue” shouted by our president particularly stung.)

But there was one thing I noticed wasn’t part of the ceremony – an invocation. Despite the absence of an official prayer, no one seemed any less enthusiastic, celebratory or grateful.

Yet every year around this time, public schools across the country insist that a formal act of worship must be included in graduation ceremonies. For example, Greenwood High School near Indianapolis has encouraged a student-led prayer at commencement for the past 50 years. For the past 15 years, the school has allowed students to vote on whether prayer should be part of the event.

This year was no different. In September, graduating students were called to an assembly and handed ballots that instructed the students: “You may, as a class, decide to have a class prayer at your graduation ceremony. If you choose to have a prayer it will be non-denominational & be led by a member of your class. Please vote YES or NO below.”

As in previous years, a majority of students voted to hold the prayer. But this year, the school’s valedictorian, Eric Workman, who will deliver a speech at the ceremony, filed a lawsuit objecting to both the proposed religious exercise and to the school’s voting policy.

A few days ago, a federal district court judge agreed with Workman (who was represented by the Indiana ACLU) and granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting the high school from sponsoring the prayer at its May 28 ceremony.

Judge Sarah Evans Barker, a Reagan appointee, said the courts have been very clear on the issue. She cited Lee v. Weisman, a 1992 Supreme Court decision that struck down clergy-led invocations at school graduation ceremonies.

Barker also pointed to Santa Fe Indep. School Dist. v. Doe, a 2000 Supreme Court decision that barred student votes on holding prayers before high school football games.

The high court, in holding the school’s policy unconstitutional, said “this student election does nothing to protect minority views but rather places the students who hold such views at the mercy of the majority.”

Barker said the situation at Greenwood High School is no different and found that the school had “put itself in constitutional duck soup.”

Wrote the judge, “Greenwood’s graduation prayer practice, like the one in Santa Fe, ‘is invalid on its face because it establishes an improper majoritarian election on religion, and unquestionably has the purpose and creates the perception of encouraging the delivery of prayer. Under the circumstances of this case, were a prayer to be permitted at the upcoming Greenwood graduation ceremony, it would likely be perceived ‘as a public expression of the views of the majority of the student body delivered with the approval of the school administration.’”

Greenwood Superintendent David Edds said the school does not plan to appeal the Workman v. Greenwood Community School Corporation decision. He indicated that the district will no longer hold votes or try to sponsor graduation prayers in future years.

We’re happy to see this matter in Greenwood, Ind., brought to a close, and we congratulate Greenwood valedictorian Eric Workman for standing up for the Constitution. But it would be even more satisfying if all public schools this graduation season could honor each and every student – regardless of religious background – without needing a federal court to intervene.