If the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear the Rhode Island school prayer case, Granite and Alpine school districts will ask a Utah federal court judge to postpone trial on the Utah school prayer case until after the Supreme Court rules.
Attorneys for the districts and the Utah Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union appeared in federal court Friday afternoon to schedule pretrial hearings on the ACLU's suit to stop prayer at high school graduations.Granite attorney John Robson asked U.S. District Judge Thomas Greene to postpone the first pretrial hearing until March 29 to give the Supreme Court time to decide whether it would take the Rhode Island case.
The case is 11th on the Supreme Court's calendar, he said. The court should decide within two weeks whether to hear the case, he said.
The Utah attorney general filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Rhode Island, urging the top court to hear the case. The Utah State Board of Education sent Rhode Island $10,000 of state money to defray legal costs associated with the Supreme Court appeal.
The Society of Separationists threatened to sue the attorney general and the state school board for those actions, claiming that they violated an article in the state constitution that prohibits spending state money on religious activities. However, no suit has yet been filed.
State officials say they assisted Rhode Island in its appeal because the Rhode Island case is similar enough to the Utah case that a Supreme Court ruling will make the cost of the Utah battle unnecessary. Utah's suit deals with students giving prayers at high school graduations. Rhode Island's suit centers on a prayer given by a rabbi at a middle school.
ACLU lawyers indicated in court Friday that they would oppose the districts' attempt to stay action on the Utah suit. When Robson suggested Greene hear his arguments to postpone the trial on March 29, ACLU attorney Diane Abegglen objected. Holding those arguments on the 29th did not give her enough time to prepare a brief in opposition to Robson's motion, she said.
Greene said he would wait to see what the Supreme Court did before deciding when to hear arguments on a postponement.
The March 29 hearing was scheduled for the ACLU to argue that the part of the suit dealing with the school districts' alleged violations of the state constitution should be heard by the Utah Supreme Court and not the federal court. The allegations of U.S. constitutional violations would be heard by Greene.
The school districts are expected to oppose that motion. "Sending it to the Supreme Court is premature," Robson told the Deseret News after Friday's hearing.
The ACLU filed its suit July 30 on behalf of Granite High graduate Kecia Albright and two Orem high faculty members. The suit said junior and senior high students and faculty are often forced to participate in acts of worship that violate their personal beliefs.
The school districts claim that prayer at high school graduation is an exercise of the constitutional right to free speech.