A Utah group committed to the separation of church and state has threatened to sue two Utah agencies for spending tax dollars to promote prayer in the schools.
The Utah chapter of the Society of Separationists Inc. has raised funds and hired an attorney in preparation of a suit against the Utah attorney general's office and the Utah State Board of Education.The group threatens to sue the two agencies for using tax dollars to support the Rhode Island State School Board in its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court over prayer in school.
The Utah Attorney General's office has filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the Rhode Island State School Board's appeal of a federal court ruling against prayer at high school graduations.
The Utah State School Board had set aside $10,000 from its discretionary fund for the Rhode Island school prayer fight. The money would help the Rhode Island school board defray legal expenses.
The Separationists claims the brief and the $10,000 aid to Rhode Island violated the Utah constitution.
"The state constitution says you can't spend public money in support of a religious exercise and that's what they are doing," Allen said.
His society sent letters to Attorney General Paul Van Dam and Jay Taggart, state superintendent of instruction, on Monday, threatening to sue them unless they "promptly" ceased spending public money to assist Rhode Island.
Allen said he believes the two agencies actions violate Article I Sec. 4 of the Utah Constitution: "No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or for the support of ecclesiastical establishment."
The attorney general's brief did not support Rhode Island's pro-prayer position, said John Clark, counsel to the attorney general.
The brief urged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Rhode Island's appeal because "the state of Utah and the rest of the nation would benefit by a Supreme Court decision on this issue," Clark said. Federal circuit courts have been split over the issue of prayer at school activities, he said. A Supreme Court ruling could save Utah taxpayers the cost of fighting the issue out here in Utah.
The brief did not take a position on the merits of Rhode Island's appeal, Clark said.
Allen's group hired civil rights attorney Brian Barnard to handle legal action against the state.
Barnard challenged the state's claim that it is neutral over Rhode Island's appeal and only filed the brief to help the case get a Supreme Court hearing.
"That's hogwash," he said. "If the state was neutral, it would have given half of the $10,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and half to the school board. If it was neutral, it would have signed signed briefs for both sides, and not just the brief supporting the school board's position," he said.
"It's apparent from the position the state and the school board have taken that they support school prayer," Barnard said.
Utah became embroiled in its own school prayer controversy last summer when the Utah chapter of the ACLU filed suit against Alpine and Granite school districts for allowing prayer at high school graduation.
The Society of Separationists has 700 members in Utah, Allen said.