An Indiana school district has promised the Freedom From Religion Foundation that graduation prayers will not occur again in its schools.
A concerned Elkhart Community Schools parent contacted FFRF to report that the 2016-17 graduation ceremony at the Roosevelt STEAM Academy began with a prayer. The speaker asked the audience to stand and bow their heads, and then led a sectarian Christian prayer, concluding with "In Jesus' name, Amen."
"The Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Elkhart Community Schools Legal Counsel Douglas Thorne last month. "School officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, or benediction at a public school event."
This prayer is especially egregious when involving a captive group of impressionable elementary-age school children, FFRF added. Parents, not public schools, are responsible for the religious or nonreligious upbringing of their children. And courts have continually reaffirmed that the rights of minorities are protected by the Constitution. It makes no difference how many students want prayer or wouldn't be offended by prayer at their graduation ceremony.
The school district has assured FFRF that it will adhere to the First Amendment.
"Our obligation to maintain a status of religious neutrality is communicated to our staff at all levels on a regular basis and I am, by copy of this letter, reminding our building principal on the importance of maintaining this status at all school functions," Thorne responded. "We will continue in our efforts to meet those obligations."
FFRF is pleased that its reasoning made an impact.
"School districts have an obligation to ensure that students — especially elementary-school-age kids — do not have a particular religion imposed on them," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We trust that Elkhart school officials will keep the promise they've made to us."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 nonreligious members across the country, including 400-plus in Indiana. FFRF's purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.