A judge late Friday granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting Greenwood High School from permitting student-led prayer at its May 28 graduation ceremony.
School officials said they won’t appeal U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker’s decision, effectively ending the dispute.
In the ruling, Barker wrote that “the process in place permitting a student-led prayer at Greenwood represents a clear violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, as does the delivery of a specific prayer set to occur as the result of that process during the upcoming 2010 graduation ceremony.”
Greenwood Superintendent David Edds said he was not completely surprised by the ruling.
“We wanted to make the case that we believe it (prayer) has a place in high school graduations,” Edds said. “We think the students . . . who made the decision to have a prayer should be able to have that voice as well.”
Edds said the district would not hold votes or try to hold graduation prayers in future years.
“The reality is there is a precedent, and the case law that preceded the case today made our challenge difficult,” he said.
ACLU-Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk said he was happy about the judge’s ruling. The ACLU had filed the suit on behalf of valedictorian Eric Workman, who claimed the graduation prayer violates the First Amendment provision of the separation of church and state.
“This is what the Constitution demands in this instance,” Falk said of the ruling. “I would hope that the judge was quite clear in court. She viewed it as a teaching opportunity. I hope everyone understands the scope of the Constitution here.”
Falk had not spoken to Workman after the ruling but said the student would not comment publicly.
The ruling came hours after a federal court hearing in which Barker had strongly signaled she would rule against the school district. Barker said the vote trampled the rights of the minority of students who voted against prayer and said the school “put itself in constitutional duck soup.”
Barker described Workman’s actions as courageous and warned against repercussions against him.
Greenwood High, for several years, has given its seniors a paper ballot asking them to vote on whether they want a prayer read at graduation. Each time, they’ve supported it.
“I think it’s been 15 years they (have) voted on it and they’ve been saying a prayer at commencement for 50 years,” Edds said.
Judy L. Woods, a Bose McKinney & Evans lawyer who represents the Greenwood school district had said the school was not asking Workman to participate in a religious ceremony during commencement, but only “to sit and listen politely.”
“Just as people will be asked to listen to Mr. Workman’s commencement address politely,” Woods said.
During the hearing, the judge aggressively questioned the school attorney. Barker repeatedly asked Woods to show how administrators weren’t advocating government-sanctioned prayer.
“You cannot deny that the school’s hand was in this from the beginning,” the judge said.
The school claims the prayer meets constitutional muster because the students had input and administrators weren’t foisting it on them. Woods argued prior court decisions left room for prayer if students approved it. She said Greenwood crafted its process with that in mind.
“The (previous) decision doesn’t say you can’t have prayer,” Woods said. “I think it is a matter of degree.”
Judge Barker scoffed at that contention.
“They (administrators) put it on the ballot. The school constructed the ballot,” Barker said. “They anticipated its success.”
School prayer cases have subsided substantially since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that Texas high school students could not deliver prayers at football games.
In that case, administrators set up a process where students first voted on whether to allow a prayer at the games and, if that was approved, then voted on who would give the prayer, said David Orentlicher, the Samuel R. Rosen Professor of Law at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis.
A decision eight years earlier forbade schools from sponsoring prayer, said the professor, who did not attend the court hearing but agreed with Judge Barker’s assessment.
“She’s quite right that it’s hard to see how to distinguish what they’re doing from what the court has already addressed,” Orentlicher said.
Judge Barker teaches Sunday school on a rotation and sings in the choir of the Morgantown United Methodist Church, said her pastor, the Rev. Roy Ice.
President Ronald Reagan appointed the Mishawaka native to the federal bench in 1984. On Friday, she spoke about her responsibility to uphold the Constitution and follow legal precedents.
She called school prayer a legal issue of “great significance” and “great tension.”
“It goes to the souls of individual citizens,” Barker said. “And every citizen is entitled to hold their own views.”