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Behind the Headlines: As Graduation Season Begins, Utah Student Presses Her Case

One year after standing up against Mormon prayer enthusiasts as her Salt Lake City high school, Rachel Bauchman’s legal battle is far from over.

Last spring, Bauchman, who is Jewish, won a court order forbidding her school choir from singing religious devotional music at the school’s graduation ceremony.

But a defiant choir went ahead and prayed anyway.

As Bauchman and her mother got up to leave, parents and students in the audience jeered and spat at them.

In February, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school administrators who failed to implement the court order were not in contempt of court.

But now, as a U.S. District Court again weighs Bauchman’s complaint, which alleges that the school’s choir class violated her constitutional rights by continuously performing religious songs, Bauchman remains adamant in her defense of the principle of church-state separation.

“I somehow got through that awful time of my life and I’m now more determined than ever not to give up,” Bauchman, now 17 and a junior, told a group of Jewish high school students gathered in Washington recently for a program organized by the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values.

“Nobody should be put through what I was put through in their own public school.”

As the religious right continues to whittle away at the barriers between church and state in America, Bauchman’s case has become one of many flashpoints in the debate over prayer in public schools.

The issue is all the more timely with the onset of graduation season, when the question of prayer at commencement ceremonies is debated in communities across the country.

The debate points to a widening rift between those who stand behind the First Amendment freedom to exercise their religion and those who stress the First Amendment’s protections against any from of government-imposed religious practice.

Bauchman’s struggle began during the 1994-1995 school year, when Bauchman’s choir teacher, Richard Torgerson, announced the repertoire for a Christmas concert.

It consisted mostly of contemporary Christian devotionals praising Jesus.

In addition, she said, he proselytized during class, explaining the meanings of songs by asking students to envision Jesus “dying for our sins.”

“I didn’t feel as a Jew I could honestly and in good conscience sing these particular songs,” Bauchman said.

She decided to attend the predominantly Mormon school because it was the only school in Utah that offered a baccalaureate program designed to let students enter college as a sophomore.

Joining the a capella school choir seemed a natural move, she said, because she had sung soprano in school choruses since the first grade.

Bauchman voiced objections to the Christian repertoire, but Torgerson and school administrators refused to accommodate her concerns, suggesting instead that she sit in the library during choir practice.

Life quickly became a nightmare.

“I was elbowed in the hall, had obscenities yelled at me and vicious rumors and lies were spread about me,” she said.

Classmates called her “dirty Jew” and told her to go back to Israel. When she ran for class president, students scrawled swastikas on her posters. They said Hitler didn’t finish the job.

“It is nothing short of criminally negligent that no one blew the whistle at any of those students who called her a `dirty Jew’ or `Jew bitch,’ who drew swastikas on her posters, who spat at her in the name of Christianity at a public concert,” said Lisa Thurau, executive director of the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty, which has assisted Bauchman in her legal challenge.

The controversy culminated last spring when what Bauchman called “religious” songs – the contemporary Christian devotional “Friends” as well as “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” – were selected for the graduation ceremony.

When Bauchman was told her that attendance at the ceremony was mandatory, she filed a complaint in U.S. District Court and – on appeal – won a temporary restraining order against the songs.

But the students rebelled and belted out “Friends” anyway as most in the audience chimed in.

“Friends” includes the lines: “Friends are friends forever if the Lord’s the Lord of them,” and “In the Father’s hands we know that a lifetime’s not too long to live as friends.”

In a state where the overwhelming majority of nearly 2 million residents belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church, Bauchman and her family last year became the focus of unmitigated public outrage.

They received nearly 200 harassing phone calls, she said, and the FBI has been investigating a death threat.

“I’ve lived in Texas, Connecticut and New York without any problems,” she said, “but it took a teacher and his students from Utah to show me what bigotry is all about.”

Exhausted, Bauchman dropped choir class this year, but plans to take it up again next year, saying, “I as a Jew am not going to sit by and be trampled in a teacher’s quest for religious salvation.”

Last September, U.S. District Court Judge J. Thomas Greene dismissed Bauchman’s complaint, saying that the allegations did not amount to a violation of the Constitution.

But he has since allowed Bauchman’s attorneys to present him with new evidence, which he is now considering.

Bauchman said she intends to press her complaint until she receives an apology from school officials, her choir teacher is punished and a review committee is established to set guidelines for choral music.

What will happen at this June’s graduation ceremony at West High School in Salt Lake City, meanwhile, is anyone’s guess.

Last August, school officials, who have declined to speak to the media about the matter, said it would prohibit any endorsement of religion and allow students to skip activities that violate their “rights of conscience or religious freedom.”

Exactly what that means remains unclear.

Whatever tone the choir takes on this year, Thurau said, “I’m just glad Rachel won’t be there to get harassed.”

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