Three residents have filed a complaint in 5th District Court asking for a declaratory order that no regulations or policies of the State Board of Education can be interpreted to prohibit school prayers.
The action was filed by a group that earlier had sought a ruling by the state board on the prayer issue. The board declared the matter a local concern and did not establish a statewide policy, leaving "legal and political confusion," according to the plaintiffs.The board sees the issue as a matter for the courts to interpret, said Douglas Bates, legal and legislative counsel for the board.
"The board stated this spring that it did not have a position and was not going to adopt one," he said.
Constitutional interpretation of the First Amendment is not within the board's purview, he said.
The St. George complaint also seeks a ruling that graduation prayers and prayers in public meetings are constitutional.
Washington School District, of which St. George is a part, enacted a policy in August upholding the right of free exercise of religion and speech regarding religious matters, but banning prayers at graduations. The policy is subject to review by the Washington School Board upon request by March 31 of any year, said Superintendent Steven H. Peterson.
By earlier agreement, the district is not named in the suit.
The declaratory order sought by the St. George trio, which includes a high school teacher, a Baptist minister and the parent of a student, would seek a ruling that no state laws could impede or restrict the district from implementing the policy. The complaint was filed by St. George attorney Matthew M.F. Hilton, who has led the pro-prayer charge in the county.
The St. George litigation has been the other side of a school prayer coin that now has suits seeking both to protect and ban school prayers. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against Granite and Alpine districts for allowing prayers at graduations and other school events, saying such prayers are unconstitutional.
State school officials have asked the litigants in northern Utah to seek a stay on their suits until the Supreme Court has heard a Rhode Island appeal, which could make the Utah cases moot. Neither the ACLU nor the districts have yet indicated any intent to put a hold on the Utah suits.
"There are two issues that the (St. George) lawsuit seeks to clarify. First, inaction by the State School Board last spring led to significant confusion regarding freedom of speech and religion under Utah law," Hilton said. "It is hoped this litigation will clarify some of the legal and political confusion resulting from their inaction.
"Second, regardless of whether the U.S. Supreme Court chooses to hear and reverse the Rhode Island prayer case from the 1st Circuit, it would be helpful to already have clarifying precedent under Utah law on these issues," he said.
No attorney fees, damages or injunctions are being sought, Hilton said.