Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award
The Indiana student who stopped school prayer
Eric Workman, who addressed FFRF’s 33rd national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 30, writes: “I had an amazing, exceptional experience at this convention that far surpasses that of any church service I’ve ever attended. It was a pleasure to address my fellow FFRF comrades about my experience and to meet so many intelligent freethinkers!”
Eric was valedictorian of his high school graduating class and attends Indiana University with a biochemistry/pre-medicine major.
His speech follows.
It is an honor to be the recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award. I would like to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the California couple who endowed the $1,000 scholarship.
My story begins in September 2009, when I and the rest of the senior class at Greenwood [Ind.] Community High School were called to assembly in the auditorium by the school’s administration. The upcoming year was discussed, and we each got a ballot that asked whether or not we, individually and collectively, wanted to have a “nondenominational,” student-led prayer at commencement.
Knowing that this vote and any resulting majority decision to include school-sanctioned prayer at graduation were blatantly unconstitutional, I voted against having an illegal prayer at my graduation ceremony. I also wrote on the back of my ballot that I would contact the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana if the vote resulted in a majority decision to have student-led, school-endorsed prayer at commencement. My declaration was unfortunately disregarded, in addition to the law.
After not having heard from school officials about the actions I was willing to take in response to their violating the U.S. Constitution and knowing that a majority had decided to include school-approved prayer in the commencement ceremony, I wrote a letter to the ACLU describing the circumstances of my case. Shortly thereafter, Ken Falk, legal director of ACLU of Indiana, contacted me.
We ultimately decided to file a lawsuit in federal court for three reasons:
(1) A prior experience I had with the school did not lead to a successful resolution of issues due to the principal being a milquetoast individual. (2) Greenwood is predominantly inhabited by the Religious Right, and accordingly, reasoning with such individuals, of which the administration is a part, would have been futile. (3) A verbal agreement is not as concrete as a legally binding document issued through the court.
On March 11, ACLU of Indiana filed the lawsuit on my behalf in federal district court. Its purpose was to halt any and all school-condoned prayer at the May 28 commencement. On April 30, District Judge Sarah Evans Barker issued a preliminary injunction to do just that. In her ruling, Judge Barker stated that “the degree of school involvement ma[de] it clear that [any graduation] prayer [would] ‘bear the mark of the state,’ and accordingly [transgress] the Constitution.”
In an effort to circumvent Judge Barker’s order, the Greenwood Community School Corporation chose to not exercise prior restraint in reviewing the graduation speeches before the ceremony, as was its previous practice and custom. This meant that the student speakers could say anything they wanted without the school being liable. I, believe it or not, took the most advantage of this new policy.
In my speech as class valedictorian, I discussed the First Amendment to the Constitution and the principle of state-church separation. I outlined how the School Corporation flagrantly contravened the First Amendment and how most of my classmates accepted this act of lawbreaking as being kosher. It was not kosher; it was utterly appalling. The reality of being asked whether I wanted one of this nation’s most sacred, intrinsically fundamental laws to be broken by the very entity responsible for upholding it was absolutely repugnant.
The Constitution and, in particular, the Bill of Rights protect the minority from the majority and the people from the government. Thomas Jefferson is quoted as having said: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in [most] cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate [them] would be oppression.”
The Bill of Rights is designed to ensure the sovereignty of civil liberties, to give all persons equal protections and to be timeless in its intentions. The First Amendment, which states in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” implies that no entity, agent or facet (however subsidiary) of the government is to ever endorse, promote, or encourage any form of religion or religious doctrine. This can be further derived from the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, which indicates that the Bill of Rights is applicable to all citizens, and extrapolating further, all levels of government.
It is when we allow laws as integral to our individual rights as the First Amendment to continually be disregarded that we lose those rights. Liberties lost are not likely to ever be regained. Martin Niemöller wrote: “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Because civil rights are constantly under siege and too few people defend those rights, I took a stand. I chose to ensure that I would not lose my civil liberties.
Losing my religion
During this entire process, I was of the Christian faith. This was not so much a religious issue for me as it was a legal one. The Religious Right, however, tried to turn it into a personal, religious issue. People would say to me, “The United States was founded by Christians,” or “You just want to attack Christianity,” or finally, “There is nothing wrong with prayer.”
The United States of America was not founded by Christians and is not a theocracy. James Madison said, “During almost 15 centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”
• John Adams said, “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of [hu]mankind has preserved — the cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”
• Thomas Paine said, “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of god. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize [hu]mankind.”
• Thomas Jefferson said, “Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”
I did not want to attack Christianity; I was a Christian. It was my purpose to safeguard my rights as a U.S. citizen and to maintain a wall between state and church, a wall clearly defined by Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptists.
There is something wrong when the government is endorsing, condoning and promoting prayer.
Through this legal journey, I also went on a spiritual journey of sorts. I was born and raised in a conservative, Baptist household. I was taught that there exists both a heaven and a hell, and that if I believed God incarnate, Jesus Christ, went on a suicide mission to rid mankind of its innate sin, that I would escape eternal damnation in a fiery place riddled with monstrous evils that would torture me forever and always. Out of fear, I held firmly to this belief and had an imaginary friend with multiple personality disorder until last summer.
After facing so much disdain from the vile Christian population of Greenwood and other religious persons throughout the United States, I began to deeply question belonging to a religion with such loathsome followers. Knowing that most individuals are born into a particular religion, I saw it as being illogical for one religion to be correct and for all others to be wrong, having their believers be eternally damned due to the circumstances of their birth.
I also found the hubris of Christianity’s presumption that the entire cosmos was created for only one species’ existence on this pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan would put it, to be completely absurd. I took issue with the fact that there are archetypal motifs akin to the story of Jesus of Nazareth that predate and postdate its release, if you will.
Finally, I saw Christianity, as I now see all religions, to be a vestige of the primitive need to identify meaning in life through unscientific measures. It is for these reasons, among others, that I denounced the existence of a higher power and declared myself a born-again atheist.
It is enlightening to be free from the shackles of religion, to be free from the fear of eternal damnation, which is what predominantly kept me chained to the Christian faith. As a scientist, I always found it difficult to subscribe to religious doctrine, since scientific fact conflicts so abrasively with religious fiction.
But on this transitional journey from fear-stricken Christian to blaspheming heathen, I was not alone. It was with support and educational tools from Reba Boyd Wooden and Center For Inquiry Indiana that I made my conversion with ease. Reba is in the audience right now, and I would like to personally thank her.
After all this, I decided to settle with the School Corporation. We agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice under the conditions that I be paid nominal damages of $1 [a check, not “godless” currency] and the ACLU of Indiana be paid legal fees and court costs of $14,500.
I will be framing my check soon.