A left-wing political group is suing the Utah attorney general and the state superintendent of public instruction for assistance they gave Rhode Island in its graduation prayer case now on appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Utah Chapter of the Society of Separationists filed two suits in 3rd District Court Friday accusing the two officials of violating Utah's constitution, which they say prohibits the state from supporting any religious exercise.The society believes the officials violated the state constitution when State Superintendent Jay Taggart sent $10,000 of taxpayer money to Rhode Island State School Board to assist with cost of the appeal and Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Rhode Island.
The group sent letters to Taggart and Van Dam in February threatening a suit. After learning that Van Dam planned to file a second friend-of-the-court brief for Rhode Island, the society made good on its threat.
Friday's suits seek a temporary restraining order preventing Van Dam from filing the second brief and prohibiting the state from sending any more money to Rhode Island.
The Utah State Board of Education gave the Providence, R.I., School Board $10,000 from its discretionary fund in December.
Although he was not available for comment, Van Dam has said the first brief for Rhode Island, filed in February, simply urged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Rhode Island's appeal of a federal court ruling prohibiting prayer at graduation. The brief did not support Rhode Island's pro-prayer position, said John Clark, counsel to the attorney general. It simply urged the court to hear the case without taking a position on the merits of Rhode Island's case.
But Van Dam recently announced plans to file a second brief that expounds on the merits of the Rhode Island appeal. Van Dam said the brief will not "argue for more or less prayer, but for clear and manageable guidelines for our school officials to know what to do."
"I can't buy that," said Brian Barnard, attorney for the society. "To file a brief `on the merits' of a case means taking a position." he said. "There is no way they can file a brief supporting the merits of Rhode Island's case and remain neutral."In other states, such action may not be illegal, he said. But Utah's constitution prohibits state involvement in religious activity more adamantly than the U.S. Constitution does, Barnard said. Article I, Section 4 of the constitution says, "No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction."
"The federal Constitution's language is subject to niceties, degrees and interpretations," Barnard said. "But the Utah Constitution says `no' in capital letters and underlined."
The state applied money to the support of a religious activity by sending Rhode Island $10,000 and expending state employees' time and state materials to prepare the Rhode Island briefs, Barnard said.
The society's suit against Taggart has been assigned to 3rd District Judge Timothy Hansen. The suit against Van Dam has been assigned to 3rd District Judge Frank Noel. The two suits may be consolidated, Barnard said.