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School Choir Can Sing Religious Songs, Judge Rules

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A Utah student has lost her fight to keep religious songs out of her high school's choir program.

U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene dismissed a lawsuit filed earlier this year by 16-year-old Rachel Bauchman over Christian songs performed by the choir at Salt Lake City's West High School.

Ms. Bauchman, who is Jewish, objected to the choir's performance of religious music at every school concert and at Christian churches. She also claimed she was harassed at school because she challenged the practices.

Judge Greene said in his Sept. 13 ruling that religious music sung in school is not "the equivalent of prayers," and that the school did not violate Ms. Bauchman's constitutional rights.

"Music has a purpose in education beyond the mere words or notes in conveying a feeling or mood, teaching culture and history, and broadening understanding of art," the judge wrote. "In this regard, a capella singing often contains religious sentiment."

The case has been closely watched by both advocates of school prayer and proponents of the separation of church and state as a test of what is allowable religious activity in public schools.

Lawyers for the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty represented Ms. Bauchman in the lawsuit.

Lisa H. Thurau, the director of the New York City-based advocacy group, sharply criticized Judge Greene's ruling. "Religious liberty in America is in serious trouble if a court concedes facts like this and still doesn't find a teenager's constitutional rights have been violated," she said.

Ms. Bauchman's lawyers had argued that the choir program violated the establishment, free-speech, and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the Utah Constitution.

State Advised on Policy

The evidence presented by Ms. Bauchman's lawyers, however, was "skimpy at best," said Doug Bates, the school-law and legislation coordinator with the Utah education department. "To say that a song is a prayer is pretty far out."

Mr. Bates said the department supported the district in devising policies on students' rights and that the district now has those policies in place.

Although groups on both sides of the issue have become polarized by the disagreement, Mr. Bates said he believes lessons can be learned from the case.

"The lawsuit has been valuable in raising awareness of a problem," he said. "But it would be sad if this gets carried on beyond the point where it has educational value."

Ms. Bauchman's lawyers plan to appeal the decision.

In a related matter, Judge Greene also will preside over a hearing scheduled for Oct. 23 in which he will hear arguments over whether West High School violated a court injunction at its graduation ceremonies in June.

The injunction barred the choir from singing two religious songs at the ceremonies. But students and parents flouted the court order, interrupting the ceremony and singing one of the songs. (See Education Week, July 14, 1995.)

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