Judge Issues Injunction To Stop Graduation Prayer

Federal Judge Sides With Top-Ranked Senior

A federal judge late Friday overruled a student vote to have a prayer read at a central Indiana high school's graduation ceremony.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker heard arguments on the case Friday afternoon and late Friday granted a preliminary injunction against the reading of a prayer at the May 28 commencement.

Barker dismissed claims by Greenwood district attorney Judy Woods that the school's case differed from Supreme Court precedents on school prayer, and called the district's interpretation of the precedents "plainly wrong." Barker also questioned why the district relied so heavily on dissenting court opinions rather than the precedents themselves.

The hearing stemmed from a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Greenwood High School valedictorian Eric Workman. The suit asks the judge to block the May 28 commencement prayer, claiming the prayer and the senior class vote approving it unconstitutionally subject religious practice to majority rule.

The lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana says the prayer would be particularly uncomfortable for Workman, 18, who as valedictorian will be onstage when it occurs. Workman was not at the hearing.

Woods says the prayer is constitutional because the majority of the class voted on it, and says that the school conducted the vote to give students some control over their commencement ceremony.

Barker rejected the notion that the vote signaled a lack of school control over the prayer, saying the school created the ballot, chose the word "prayer" and gave students only a yes-or-no option on the vote. She repeatedly asked Woods to demonstrate how administrators weren't advocating government-sanctioned prayer.

"You can't deny that the school's hand has been in this from the beginning," Barker told Woods.

Barker also questioned principal Jim Kaylor's policy of reviewing speeches before commencement. A court-filed statement by Kaylor explains how he reviews the speeches for grammar and ensures the speeches are appropriate for the occasion and fit time limits. According to Woods, the school does not censor speeches, and would not censor the prayer should it occur.

At one point, Barker said her hunch was that Kaylor's statement came after the school realized it was in "constitutional duck soup."

Both ACLU attorney Ken Falk and Woods agreed that the facts of the case are not in dispute -- there was a ballot, students voted and the prayer is planned for the graduation ceremony -- and that the key was determining whether the prayer violates the Constitution.

Falk's statements and brief rebuttal centered on establishing that holding a vote makes the prayer school-endorsed. He rejected Greenwood's claims that the prayer would be part of a limited public forum and not sponsored by the school.

"This isn't private speech -- it's government speech," he said.

Barker had said she would issue her ruling while keeping in mind the time constraints imposed by the ceremony, and said she would allow enough time for either side to appeal.

Woods maintained that the student majority vote removes the school from the decision process and creates a limited public forum instead of a school-sponsored prayer. In response, Barker asked Woods whether the school would put to a vote freedom of the press or the right to assemble. Woods said no, and Barker agreed.

"We don't put the Constitution to a vote," Barker said.