Eighteen years ago this month, the a capella choir at West High School in Salt Lake City made national headlines when, in defiance of a court injunction, it spontaneously sang its signature song — "Friends" by Michael W. Smith — at graduation. While the song had been a West High graduation tradition for more than a decade, the 10th Circuit had issued a temporary injunction barring the song from the ceremony after Rachel Bauchman, a member of the choir and the 1996 Freedom From Religion Foundation Student Activist of the Year, sued. She claimed that the song's allusions to God violated the Establishment Clause, and sought a court order preventing the choir from singing any song that referenced deity. If successful, the lawsuit would have prevented the choir from singing most of Beethoven and Handel's masterpieces, not to mention patriotic staples such as "God Bless America" or even the national anthem.
In light of the media fire storm that followed the choir's act of civil disobedience, it became quickly apparent that the school district intended to settle.
Alarmed at what policy ramifications such a settlement would entail, a coalition of students and parents from various faith groups stepped in to intervene as defendants. Judy Eror, one of the mothers who spearheaded that effort, stated, "We were acting on principle. The Constitution guarantees us freedom of religion — not freedom from religion."
But, as Eror would discover, acting on principle had a price, and many members of the community just wanted the lawsuit to go away.
As the lawsuit raged on, the a capella choir received a welcome bit of good news. They had been selected from among thousands of applicants to travel to Washington, D.C., and sing in the Kennedy Center later that semester. The only problem? They had to pay their own way, and had only 60 days to raise the $120,000 necessary to transport the entire 100-plus member choir across the country.
They sought donations from the city's business community, but no one in the corporate world would touch them. Over and over again, they received the same rejection: "Ordinarily, we'd love to help, but since you guys are involved in that lawsuit, it would be bad PR."
But, the community backed them, even if the school district and the city's business leaders did not. "We got hundreds of checks," Eror said. "Nothing big. Usually small amounts. $25 here. $15 there. Each with a note attached saying something like, 'I'm retired. I wish I could give more, but I can't. Don't give up. Thanks for standing up for religious freedom!'"
Those checks did more than pay the choir's way to Washington, D.C., — it lifted their spirits in the midst of the litigation.
The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed as moot by the 10th Circuit after Bauchman graduated from West High School. But, the events have had a lasting impact on those students and parents who took a stand, especially the close friendship that emerged as members of different faiths bonded together to fight for a cause.
The lawsuit unified good people from all religious persuasions and beliefs, causing them to come together and stand for a principle. Perhaps, therefore, it is appropriate that the song "Friends," which started the whole lawsuit to begin with contains the phrase, "And friends are friends forever if the Lord's the Lord of them."
Religious freedom is not a Catholic issue. It's not a Mormon issue. It's not even a Christian, Jewish or Muslim issue. It is a human right. And when one person's rights to free expression are trampled on, we should all take a stand.
James Heilpern is with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C.