GREENWOOD, Ind. — When Greenwood High School valedictorian Eric Workman took to the podium Friday to deliver his commencement speech, many in the audience grew restless.
Workman had become a lightning rod for controversy in recent months because of his successful federal lawsuit against school-sanctioned prayer at the high school’s graduation. Some in the packed high school gymnasium began coughing, talking and making noise.
In the lawsuit filed March 11, Workman claimed that the graduation prayer violated First Amendment separation of church and state.
Greenwood Schools officials argued that prayer has a place in high school graduations and that students who voted in favor of the prayer should have rights as well.
However, U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker ruled in Workman’s favor in late April and granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting the school from permitting the school-sponsored prayer at its graduation ceremony.
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.”
ACLU-Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk, who filed the suit on Workman’s behalf, agrees with the student’s view that school-sponsored prayer violates the separation of church and state.
“Everyone was quite clear of the difference between a school-sponsored prayer and a spontaneous speech by a student,” Falk said before the graduation ceremony. “A non-sponsored prayer by the school is not prohibited by the court’s injunction.”
The ruling did not prohibit praying entirely — only prayers sponsored by the school, a government entity.
Superintendent David Edds said the school will not hold student votes on the issue or try to hold graduation prayers in future years.
“It’s unfortunate, but they didn’t have any choice,” said graduate Chris Finneran, who voted in favor of a prayer.
Finneran said he was glad Cox mentioned God and faith. She was the only one of the four students who spoke to do so.
“It was fantastic, classy and well done,” he said of her speech.
School administrators also have changed a previous policy and have decided not to screen students’ speeches before the commencement.
Principal James Kaylor opened the graduation ceremonies by asking for respect for all speakers and warned that anyone behaving inappropriately would be escorted from the building.
John and Pat Mauser, who went to the ceremony to see a friend’s daughter graduate, said the applause Cox received after the religious portions of her speech showed that most students and parents wanted a prayer.
Junior Morgan Flora, 17, who attended the ceremony to see friends graduate, said she wants a prayer at her graduation and believes her class will fight for it.
“It’s not bad to let people know that God is with you in your life,” she said.