HETRICK: A Greenwood High School senior stands up for individual rights.

March 20, 2010

On St. Patrick’s Day, I posted a story and a prayer on my company’s blog.

Titled “An Irish blessing in four-part harmony,” the post explained how a friend had, years ago, recruited a small choir. Our role was to sing the songs he’d composed for his sister’s wedding mass. I noted how beautiful the cathedral was and how intimidated I felt singing in the bass section next to my high school choir director.

I ended the post with the lyrics to one of the songs he had written music for—a prayer called “Old Irish Blessing.” It goes like this:

May the road rise to meet you, May the wind be always at your back, The sun shine warm upon your face, The rain fall soft upon your fields, And may God keep you in the palm of his hand.

My blog. My prayer. My right to share it publicly.

And had anyone in government tried to silence or censor me, the American Civil Liberties Union—of which I am a card-carrying member—would almost certainly have defended my right to worship as I please.

God bless America.

Meanwhile, a story broke about a proposed public prayer not so freely exercised.

The news involves Greenwood High School. For the record, Greenwood High is a public institution. It’s open to all students in that community and supported with its citizens’ tax dollars.

Back in September, it seems, Greenwood High seniors had to attend an assembly. When they got there, they were issued preprinted ballots. The ballots asked the students if they wanted to have a prayer at their May 28 graduation.

The majority voted yes.

But the top-ranked senior in the class, 18-year-old Eric Workman, learned in class that a majority vote on religious expression in a public school shouldn’t matter. Because contrary to popular-but-uninformed belief, religion is a matter of civil liberties, not majority rule.

So with the ACLU of Indiana representing him, Workman filed suit and asked a federal judge to stop the prayer that the majority of his classmates voted to approve, as well as future votes on such prayers.

The suit’s rationale: The prayer and the vote unconstitutionally subject religious practice to majority rule and, therefore, violate the First Amendment.

“You can’t have a vote whether or not to violate somebody’s constitutional rights,” ACLU Legal Director Ken Falk told the Associated Press. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

Sadly, too many Americans think it does.

In reaction to the Greenwood High School story, for example, the Rev. Shan Rutherford, pastor of Greenwood Christian Church for more than three decades, told The Indianapolis Star he disagrees with the proposition that such a prayer would violate a student’s rights.

“If I lived in a Muslim nation, a Hindu nation or anything else, I would expect to go along with the majority,” Rutherford said. “[Workman’s] trying to go with minority rule. To me, that’s wrong in a democracy, one that was founded on Christian principles.”

Who’s wrong is Rutherford. This isn’t a one-faith nation. It’s not a pure democracy. And our Founding Fathers, mostly deists, weren’t acting in the name of Christianity.

To be sure, I heard plenty about “majority rules” when I was in school. “Majority rules” determined whether we’d play kickball or box ball at recess. “Majority rules” determined what position the student council would take. “Majority rules” determined who’d be the homecoming queen.

And while majority rules in electing our public officials and how they decide many matters, democracy ends when the majority or the government tries to trample on the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

If we decided everything by majority rule, we might still be slaves and slave owners. We might still have “whites-only” water fountains. We might still be subjects of British royalty. We might have to be Anglicans or Catholics. We might have to burn unpopular books, or surrender weapons, or censor newspapers or subject our children to majority-sanctioned religious practices in public schools.

Should a majority of white students be able to oust children of color from their public school—or force them to the back of the class? Should a majority of Jewish public school students be able to abolish Christmas break? Should a majority of boys in a public school be able to oust girls from student government?

Of course not. Because, in such cases, democracy does not matter. Majority does not rule. We as individuals rule.

In this free nation (unlike Rutherford’s purported Islamic nation), neither the majority nor the government may usurp our civil liberties. Where the Constitution and Bill of Rights are concerned, we are a majority of one. And in that regard, Greenwood High’s seniors don’t have a prayer.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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