The American Civil Liberties Union will not pull back its graduation prayer lawsuit against two Utah school districts while a Rhode Island prayer suit is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We've not received any settlement offers (from the school districts). So as far as I'm concerned it's full steam ahead," said ACLU Executive Director Michele Parish-Pixler."We tried to resolve this ahead of time, out of court. All of our attempts were rebuffed. We didn't want to initiate litigation, but we've not heard any reason to stop," she said.
Parish-Pixler's comments came following a plea by Utah authorities Tuesday for all parties involved in the graduation prayer lawsuit to suspend legal action during the prayer-lawsuit appeal of a Providence, R.I., school district to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ACLU filed suit against Granite and Alpine school districts in Utah federal court in late July, challenging prayer at graduation ceremonies and other school activities. The suit contends that junior and high school students and faculty often are forced to participate in acts of worship that violate their personal religious or non-religious beliefs.
In the Rhode Island ruling, which school board members there decided to appeal Monday, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal court decision invalidating prayer at public graduation and commencement ceremonies.
Representatives for both Utah school districts Tuesday afternoon said their school boards have not taken positions on the Rhode Island suit.
John Robson, attorney for Granite School District, said while the district has not formulated an official response, "We have always been interested in looking at a stay (of the Utah cases) pending the Supreme Court decision in the Rhode Island case."
The pivotal issue in such a decision, he said, is how the matter would be treated in the interim.
"The ACLU has consistently insisted on a ban on graduation prayers next June." The district has been unwilling, to this point, to agree to that stipulation, he said.
The same is true of Alpine. Superintendent Steven Baugh said, "The Alpine District Board of Education has not taken aposition on the merits of the Rhode Island case regarding graduation prayer. However, if supporting the Rhode Island appeal means that we cease our long-standing tradition of allowing graduation prayer until the case has been resolved by the Supreme Court, we cannot actively support the effort at this time."
Tuesday's plea, which was issued by the State Office of Education, came with the blessings of the Utah attorney general and governor.
Utah's involvement in the Rhode Island case does not change the state's neutral stance on whether school districts should allow graduation prayers. That's up to the school districts, said Douglas Bates, legal counsel to the State Office of Education.
The state's decision is to only urge the top court to hear the Rhode Island appeal so that the issue can be resolved, he said. It will be up to the school districts, he added, to decide if they want to file briefs supporting Rhode Island's case.
"We're taking the position that the Supreme Court needs to decide, but on what it decides, we're not taking a position," Bates said of the state's involvement.
He said discretionary funds from the state superintendent's budget will be used to pay for the request urging the top court to hear the appeal.
Gov. Norm Bangerter said Tuesday he would be willing to consider requests from local school districts for funds to help pay for legal costs associated with their getting involved in the case.
While the governor said decisions about school prayers should be made by local school districts, he said he was not concerned about the attorney general's decision to file the friend of the court brief on behalf of the state.
"We've worked with the local school districts because we believe it is a local issue, and that's where we want to keep it," Bangerter said. "We just haven't involved the attorney general. It's his choice if he wants to get involved and file a brief."
But the ACLU has doubts that the Supreme Court justices will agree to hear the appeal.