Hoping to avoid a costly legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union, Rexburg school officials have agreed to abide by a pending court decision over school prayer in Utah.
In a statement issued Thursday, the Madison School Board said it has responded to most of the religious intrusion charges raised by the ACLU."We see no reason to continue to battle the ACLU over the issue in our community when there is nothing to be gained that could not be gained in the Utah decision," the statement said.
It said the decision was reached because "the bitterness and expense of a legal battle to determine the issue would leave scars that would take years to heal."
ACLU attorney Stephen Pevar of Denver said Monday that he was working on a lawsuit against the Madison School District covering a range of religious intrusion concerns raised by several local families earlier this year.
The constitutionality of prayers at graduation exercises is at the center of the disputes in Rexburg and Utah. The ACLU also sees holding public high school commencement exercises at Ricks College, a private school in Rexburg owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as an illegal entanglement between religion and government.
The ACLU filed suit against the Granite and Alpine districts in Utah in an effort to ban prayers in all the state's 40 school districts. Granite and Alpine contend banning graduation prayers would deprive students of their constitutional right to free speech.
The ACLU contends the districts have prayers to advance or endorse religion and it is wrong to use public funds to promote prayer.
But at least until that case is settled in court, Rexburg school officials are standing by their position of allowing student-initiated, student-led prayer at graduation and to continue conducting graduation ceremonies in Hart Gymnasium on the Ricks campus.
"The setting of the ceremonies in the Hart Gymnasium is neutral as far as any religious overtones go, and it is the only place in the area that is large (enough) to accommodate our increasingly larger graduating classes," the board's statement said.
Several unidentified families complained to the ACLU in June that the lines between the Mormon Church and the Rexburg public school system are blurred. Pevar said they were offended that students were asked by teachers if they were Mormon and planned to go on missions, that teachers referred to each other as "brother" and "sister," and that parents and students were asked in what "ward" they live.
A ward is a geographic division of the Mormon Church.
In its statement, the Madison School Board said it has responded to those concerns and has taken action to resolve the perceived problems.
"Those charges that dealt with one-time isolated incidents are easily corrected, but it takes longer to change habits of speech and mannerisms that have been developed over the years," the board's statement said. "We are committed to continuing to work with our staff on these speech patterns and mannerisms until they no longer exist."