A Jewish high school student whom classmates called “Jew Bitch” and “Dirty Jew” for her fight against Christian lyrics in choir class has won a legal battle to keep religious songs out of her school’s graduation ceremony.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver ruled this week that the West High School choir, in Salt Lake City, Utah, cannot sing two contemporary religious songs in its graduation program.
In its two-page decision issued Tuesday, just one day before the graduation, Judges Wade Brorby and David Ebel stopped the school’s a cappella choir class from singing “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” and “Friends” at the ceremony.
The case comes at a time when religion in schools is at the forefront of Jewish concerns, largely because of the Christian Coalition’s recently unveiled “Contract with the American Family.” The contract outlines forthcoming legislation that would, in effect, permit student-led prayer in public schools and at graduation ceremonies.
Rachel Bauchman, a 16-year-old sophomore in a predominantly Mormon choir, had felt uncomfortable singing songs in class that praised “Jesus Christ our savior,” and “Jesus Christ our Lord,” her mother, Cheryl, said in a telephone interview from their Salt Lake City home Wednesday.
“She was very uncomfortable” with the fact that religious songs “were all the choir sang,” she said.
The choir teacher, Richard Torgerson, is an official in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church, according to the complaint file in court.
“If there was more of a balance” in the choir’s choice of songs “she would have been okay,” she added.
Bauchman said the family tried to work with school officials on the issue, but they “turned a deaf ear,” leaving them no alternative but to bring suit.
“They were violating Rachel’s constitutional rights, and there was no other way to go,” she said.
The family is happy with the case’s outcome.
“We’re very pleased that the court agreed with our position,” the mother said.
The choir, including Rachel, was scheduled to replace the disputed songs with non-religious ones at the graduation, which was set for Wednesday night.
The ruling also drew praise from the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty. The coalition, which includes several Jewish organizations, assisted the Bauchmans in their legal challenge.
The appeals court “did the right thing,” said Lisa Thurau, the New York-based committee’s executive director.
“We think they saw the merits lay within our arguments and that it was time someone stood up and protected the rights of Rachel Bauchman,” she said.
The appeals court ruling overturned a June 2 decision by Utah U.S. District Court Judge J. Thomas Greene that would have allowed the songs at the graduation.
The lower court said banning the songs would be more damaging to graduates who would not hear them than to Bauchman’s constitutional rights.
Arguing that the songs were aesthetic, not religious, West High School officials had said Bauchman could be excused from the graduation performance.
Her lawyers dismissed that option, saying it cheated Bauchman out of a school event and could affect her standing in the class, for which she receives credit and a letter grade.
In court documents, Bauchman’s lawyers disputed the school’s claim that the songs were not religious, calling “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” “a straightforward prayer,” and quoting from “Friends.”
“Friends” includes the lines: “Friends are friends forever if the Lord’s the Lord of them,” and “In the Father’s hands we known that a lifetime’s not too long to live as friends.”
Bauchman and her lawyers argued that the school’s graduation program violated a Supreme Court precedent set in a 1992 case, Lee vs. Weisman.
In that case, the court ruled that prayer at public school graduations violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which provides for the separation of church and state, and prohibits public schools from endorsing religion on forcing students to participate in religious activities.
The current case, Bauchman vs. West High School, is the latest battle over religious lyrics that Bauchman has waged against her school.
The temporary restraining order is part of larger complaint against the school alleging that the choir’s programs violate Bauchman’s constitutional rights, Thurau said.
She said the U.S. District Court will hold a trial to determine whether such religious songs can continue in the class. A trial date has not yet been set.
As a member of the school’s choir class, the 16-year old has continually been put in the position of singing predominately religious songs at numerous programs, including a Christmas program, Thurau said.
In one incident, the class toured the country to sing at witnessing ceremonies for Mormons. The Jewish students in the class were “not invited” on the tour, according to Eric Bauchman, Rachel’s father.
There are two other Jewish students in the choir class, Cheryl Bauchman said, adding that they did not want to get involved in the fight because they were afraid of reprisals.
“It’s been hard on Rachel,” Cheryl Bauchman said. “But she does have support from her friends.”
Legal observers called the decision a victory for church-victory for church- state separation.
“It’s a victory of sorts, and a reaffirmation that will reverberate throughout the 10th Circuit,” said Marc Stern, co-director of legal affairs at the American Jewish Congress.
The 10th circuit includes Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Wyoming and Oklahoma.
Although the case breaks no new ground when it comes to the wall between church and state, Stern said, the appeals court’s quick reaction “makes it obvious” that the court was not interested in endorsing the idea that government can be used to promote religion.
The decision is “simply an application of well-settled principles,” he said.
AJCongress is a member of the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty, as is the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, the New York chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the New York Federation of Reform Synagogues, Women’s American ORT and the New York Metropolitan Region of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.