Utahns strongly approve of voluntary prayers in public school classrooms, at special events, football games, graduation ceremonies and the like. They don't much like what the American Civil Liberties Union is doing in Utah, but they also don't like Gov. Norm Bangerter's idea of spending state tax dollars to defend prayer in schools, the latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows.

The ACLU has sued two school districts, their superintendents and others for allowing prayer at high school graduations.Bangerter has suggested that the Legislature may want to allocate a relatively small amount, like $100,000, to help defray legal costs in fighting those suits. He believes there should be voluntary prayer in schools in some cases.

However, since the governor took that stand a number of private attorneys have come forward offering their services free to the school districts, aides to the governor say. So it is uncertain if any specific appropriation will be sought in January's Legislature to pay school legal fees.

Considering the strong support forschool prayer, it's a bit of a surprise that Utahns don't want to spend tax dollars on the lawsuits.

Pollster Dan Jones & Associates found that only 39 percent of Utahns agree with Bangerter's position that state funds should be used to fight ACLU lawsuits filed against school districts over the prayer issue.

A majority - 53 percent - think the governor is wrong to spend state funds on the lawsuits.

While Utahns don't want to spend state money on law suits, they believe prayer belongs in the schools. Only 26 percent of Utahns believe that public prayer has no place in the schools - basically the ACLU's opinion.

Seventy-two percent said prayer does belong in the schools, with 76 percent saying multidenominational, voluntary prayer should be allowed in classrooms. Jones found that 70 percent agree that prayers should be allowed at special events like football games, club meetings or graduations, but that voluntary prayer isn't appropriate in regular classroom settings.

The ACLU has been in the news not only for its lawsuits against school prayer, but also over its suits involving forced double-bunking at the Utah State Prison.

In the context of the school prayer matter, however, 59 percent disapprove of the job the civil liberties group is doing. Only 25 percent approve of the ACLU's job, while 16 percent didn't have an opinion, Jones found.

"That doesn't surprise me," said Michele Parish-Pixler, executive director of the Utah chapter of the ACLU. "The ACLU always defends the minority's viewpoint. It is unlikely the majority will ever empathize with our work.

"It takes a high degree of intelligence and moral reasoning to understand what we do - basically defend people's rights under the Constitution regardless of popular sentiment," she said.

The fact that only 16 percent don't have an opinion of the ACLU's job performance tells Parish-Pixler "that at least we're getting our message out and people are hearing it, whether they like it personally or not."

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POLL

Do you agree or disagree with the following statements about prayer in schools?

Strongly Somewhat Somewhat Strongly Don't

agree agree disagree disagree know

Prayer has no place in schools 15% 11% 21% 51% 2%

Prayer allowed in classrooms 47% 29% 8% 13% 2%

No classroom prayer, but prayer

at special events 38% 32% 13% 15% 2%

Sample size: 900; margin of error plus or minus 3.2%