Written by Tiffany Beenken
In 2009, when the majority of students at Greenwood High School voted to support a student-led prayer at graduation, my brother, Eric Workman, then 18-years-old and valedictorian of his class, contacted the ACLU of Indiana. With the help of legal director Ken Falk, a lawsuit was filed against the school corporation for violations of First Amendment rights. The graduation went ahead without school sponsored-prayer after a ruling in federal court.
As I revisit the many news articles and web documents of that episode, my emotions resurface. My brother stood up for what he believed in, but an ugly side of the surrounding community also showed its face. He received a lot of criticism and hate mail. Some threatened his life; others wrote awful, hateful words about him. At first, the entire situation was hard for me to grasp because I didn't know how to respond without becoming emotional or defensive.
No one, regardless of their religious belief, should be forced to participate in a religious exercise not of their choosing.
I was proud of Eric for all his accomplishments and excited to see him graduate as valedictorian. But I grew increasingly concerned and frightened about my brother being in the public eye over this controversial subject. With every threatening piece of hate mail, I became more nervous about the possibility of his being harmed by those aggressively angry people.
The odds were stacked against Eric when he stood at the podium on graduation day, ready to give his speech. Once he began speaking, the crowd became noisy. They started coughing to drown out his words. It felt as though no one cared; that they were focused on being hateful and rude toward this young, accomplished man. They had no interest in hearing his side – that no one, regardless of their beliefs, should be forced to participate in a religious exercise not of their choosing. The crowd was convinced my brother was wrong.
Although the angry verbal assault made me cry out of anger and sadness, it did not faze Eric. He spoke louder into the microphone, determined to stand his ground and finish his speech – which he did proudly and without regret. After the ceremony, my mom and I hugged him and cried because we were so proud. Eric was immediately approached by a reporter for a television interview. As we watched him get bombarded with questions – in spite of everything – all this proud sister could do was smile.