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Not A Prayer

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A 16-year-old Utah student has lost an initial court battle to keep Christian songs out of the choir program at her Salt Lake City high school. U.S. District Judge Thomas Greene dismissed Rachel Bauchman's lawsuit filed earlier this year over the choir's performance of religious music at school concerts.

In his September ruling, Judge Greene said religious music sung in school is not "the equivalent of prayers'' and that Salt Lake City's West High School did not violate Bauchman's constitutional rights. "Music,'' the judge wrote, "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 case has been closely watched by both advocates of school prayer and proponents of the separation of church and state, who see it as a test of what religious activities are permissible in public schools.

Bauchman, who is Jewish, was represented by lawyers for the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty. They had argued that the choir program violated the establishment and free-speech clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as well as the Utah Constitution.

Lisa Thurau, director of the New York City-based advocacy group, sharply criticized Greene's ruling and promised an appeal. "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,'' Thurau said.

But Doug Bates, a school-law and legislation coordinator for the Utah education department, disagreed, arguing that the evidence presented by Bauchman's side was "skimpy at best.'' "To say that a song is a prayer,'' he said, "is pretty far out.''

Still, Bates 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.''

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