Graduation Season Legal Battles Commence

By Mark Walsh — May 06, 2010 2 min read
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High school commencement season is fast approaching, and that is leading to legal disputes over public education and religion.

In Indiana, a federal district judge last week issued a preliminary injunction barring officials of the Greenwood school district from permitting student-led prayers at graduation exercises. The district has allowed senior class members to vote on whether to have a nondenominational prayer led by a student at commencement.

The policy was challenged by Eric Workman, the valedictorian at Greenwood High School, as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on a government establishment of religion.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker said in her April 30 opinion in Workman v. Greenwood Community School Corporation that the suit likely has merit because the Greenwood district’s policy falls within the limitations on graduation prayer articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.

“The policy in place at Greenwood purposefully encourages the delivery of a majority-sanctioned prayer at a regularly scheduled, school-sponsored function conducted on school property,” Judge Barker said. “That policy therefore violates the Constitution as an establishment of religion.”

The Indianapolis Star reported here that the Greenwood school district did not plan to appeal the ruling in advance of the May 28 graduation ceremony at Greenwood High.

Separately, a lawsuit was filed this week challenging a Connecticut school district’s plans to hold commencement exercises for its high schools at a church. The suit was filed on behalf of five anonymous students and parents by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Connecticut.

The suit against the Enfield, Conn., school district contends that holding public school graduation exercises at a church violates the Establishment Clause. The district plans to hold graduation for its two high schools at First Cathedral, a Baptist church in Bloomfield, Conn., the suit says.

“High-school graduations are once-in-a-lifetime, deeply significant events for graduates and their families, including the plaintiffs. In light of the religious messages and symbols displayed throughout graduation ceremonies held at the Cathedral, these public-school
events convey the strong impression not of secular high-school commencements, but rather of sectarian religious events,” says the suit, which seeks an injunction barring the school district from holding the graduation ceremonies at the church.

The Hartford Courant has a report here, including a picture of the church.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.