Utah Lawsuit Sets Off Raging Debate Over Prayer at School-Related Events

By Mark Walsh — September 05, 1990 2 min read
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A debate over prayer at school events in Utah has raged over the summer, engulfing school districts, state education officials, and even the Governor.

Meanwhile, the Providence, R.I., school board is trying to decide whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court an appeals-court decision banning prayer at graduation ceremonies.

In Utah, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit July 30 against the Granite and Alpine school districts and their officials. The suit calls for an end to prayers at high-school graduations, junior-high-school promotion ceremonies, and such other activities as school-sponsored baccalaureate services, plays, and choir performances.

The lawsuit contends that the prayers violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on the government establishment of religion.

The lawsuit had been threatened for several months after ACLU officials wrote to state and local education officials earlier this year urging that they not allow prayers at graduation.

“Reciting prayers at public-school activities advances the particular theology proclaimed, with state approval, to the detriment of religious diversity and freedom from state coercion,” Michele Parish-Pixler, executive director of the ACLU of Utah, said in a memorandum to state Attorney General R. Paul Van Dam earlier this year.

Public debate on the issue intensified last year when a student in the Jordan school district complained about a Mormon prayer used at graduation ceremonies. The district dropped prayer from its graduation ceremonies in response to a lawsuit filed on the student’s behalf.

Approximately 70 percent of Utah’s population belongs to the Mormon church, and recent polls have indicated that about 70 percent of residents favor prayers at school ceremonies, Ms. Parish-Pixler said.

Even before the lawsuit against the Alpine and Granite districts was filed, Gov. Norman H. Bangerter was calling for a legislative appropriation to help the districts defend against the ACLU

“I believe it is imperative that the support of the Governor’s office, the legislature, and the board of education be behind these districts as they fight for their basic values,” the Governor was quoted as saying in July.

Since then, the Governor seems to have softened his call for state taxpayers’ money to be spent defending the suit, suggesting that private contributions be made to the two districts to help offset legal expenses.

“He has already gotten the publicity value” out of supporting school graduation prayer, Ms. Parish said.

Officials of both districts have defended prayers at school ceremonies, although they have not responded to the lawsuit in court.

Loren G. Burton, superintendent of the Granite district, which includes Salt Lake City and is the state’s largest, said school officials are not “imposing anything” on students by allowing prayers at graduation and other ceremonies, where attendance is voluntary.

“We don’t really think the ACLU ought to be telling the Granite School District what it can and cannot do in terms of governance,” he said.

But the Granite district will see whether the Providence district appeals its case to the Supreme Court before deciding whether to fight the lawsuit, he said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on July 23 upheld in a 2-to-1 ruling a federal district-court decision that a rabbi’s benediction at a middle-school graduation violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Providence School Committee is weighing whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, said its chairman, Vincent McWilliams.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Utah Lawsuit Sets Off Raging Debate Over Prayer at School-Related Events


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