Indiana school district kowtows to atheist group, promises to end graduation prayers

Indiana school district kowtows to atheist group, promises to end graduation prayers
One Indiana school district has decided to remove all prayer from its graduation practices after a prominent atheist group sent the district a letter of complaint. (2012 file photo/Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

One Indiana school district has kowtowed to a prominent atheist group’s complaint about incorporating prayer into its graduation ceremonies.

Elkhart Community Schools received a letter of complaint last month from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation regarding the fact that prayers were featured in a graduation ceremony at the Roosevelt STEAM Academy, an elementary school with a hands-on approach to science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

In a response sent to the FFRF late last month, Elkhart Schools District Counsel Chief of Staff and General Counsel W. Douglas Thorne confirmed to the atheist organization that the schools would stop including prayer in their ceremonies.

“The Elkhart Community Schools understand our obligation to maintain a status of neutrality on matters related to religious belief, and to avoid actions which might be construed as endorsement of any particular religious beliefs,” Thorne wrote. “Our obligation to maintain a status of religious neutrality is communicated to our staff at all levels on a regular basis.”

Thorne’s letter came after the school district received two notices from the FFRF arguing that the inclusion of prayer at school-sanctioned events is “unconstitutional.”

FFRF lawyer Ryan Jayne said the group penned the letter after a “concerned parent” reached out to them because a speaker “invoked the name of Jesus” during the May 26 graduation ceremony at the Roosevelt STEAM Academy.

“The Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations,” Jayne wrote. “It makes no difference how many students want prayer or wouldn’t be offended by prayer at their graduation ceremony.”

Furthermore, in a Thursday statement about the school district’s decision, the FFRF said prayer “is especially egregious when involving a captive group of impressionable elementary-age school children.”

All of this comes not long after Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) signed legislation to protect students’ right to religious expression in Hoosier State schools. The law, known as House Bill 1024, went into effect in July.

The legislation “provides that public school students may pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during, and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression.”

The bill also permits public schools to teach survey courses on world religions, allows children to express their opinions about God in their schoolwork, wear jewelry or clothing with religious symbolism, and grants religious student groups the right to use school facilities, according to USA Today.

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