U.S. District Judge Thomas Greene denied Wednesday a preliminary injunction prohibiting prayer at Orem High School graduation ceremony.
The ruling means the judge was not convinced that the American Civil Liberties Union is likely to win its lawsuit against graduation prayers in Granite and Alpine school districts.Greene said the voluntary, non-sectarian, non-proselyting prayers in Alpine School District may be approved by the U.S. Supreme Court upon hearing the case. He noted that prayer in that school district has occurred at graduations for 82 years on a non-discriminatory, non-sectarian basis and he will allow it to continue.
Greene earlier accepted an agreement between the Granite School District and the ACLU that graduation prayers will not be uttered at Granite and Olympus high schools this year.
But Greene issued a strong warning to Granite officials that they are "not to encourage or discourage the students' rights to engage in voluntary prayer in the moment of silence."
Students at Granite and Olympus voted not to have prayer at their graduations. Granite High students have chosen instead to include a poem or thought in the ceremony. Olympus students opted for a moment of silence.
In light of that vote, the ACLU withdrew its motion for a preliminary injunction prohibiting graduation prayer at the two Granite high schools.
Superintendent Loren Burton said Wednesday morning the agreement should not be misunderstood. Granite School District has not backed down on the school prayer issue one iota, the superintendent said.
"The district hasn't bowed to anything. . . . The ACLU has not won a victory. It is not a victory by any stretch of the imagination. We maintain our same position," Burton said, responding angrily to news reports.
For years, the district's policy has been to let the students decide whether to include prayers on the graduation program, the superintendent said. That's what happened with the Granite and Olympus votes, he said.
"The district would have supported the schools had they chosen to have prayer," Burton said.
Wednesday morning, Greene held a hearing on whether a preliminary injunction prohibPlease see PRAYER on B2
iting prayer should be imposed against Orem High School. Students at Orem also voted on whether or not to have prayer; all but 41 votes were in favor of prayer, said Brinton R. Burbidge, attorney for Alpine School District.
The attorney said the observances at Orem High have been characterized as invocation or benediction but may not necessarily be prayers.
Will it be a prayer? "I can't guarantee that," Burbidge said.
Despite Orem's ambiguity, the ACLU fought hard for an injunction prohibiting graduation prayer at the school. The courtroom Wednesday was packed with students, journalists and a dozen lawyers.
The Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'rith filed a last-minute brief supporting the ACLU position and asked Greene's permission to argue for the preliminary position for the ACLU. Greene denied its request, chiding the league for its 11th-hour involvement in the case.
In order to get a preliminary injunction against prayer at Orem High School, the ACLU must prove that no prayer is in the public interest, that the students will be irreparably harmed if there is prayer and that they are likely to win their case seeking a permanent ban on graduation prayer.
Burbidge argued that the ACLU can't prove that they are likely to win a ban on graduation prayer. He noted that two circuit courts have approved the practice and the issue is so complicated that the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing it.
The ACLU's Michael O'Brien likened graduation prayer with the posting of the 10 Commandments, the using of a temple in a city seal, the teaching of creation science and classroom prayer - all of which have been banned by U.S. courts.
Orem High students opposed to prayer would be irreparably harmed by that prayer, he said. "Students rarely forget what happens at graduation. They will not forget that their graduation was opened and closed by prayer."
O`Brien said prayers in the Alpine District are even more offensive because "they most always represent prayers typical of those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . . the dominant religion in Utah County."
Burbidge argued that Alpine students would be irreparably harmed if they couldn't have prayer at graduation.
Noting that the court ruling cited by the ACLU dealt with mandated religious activities, Burbidge stressed that the students at Orem High were allowed to choose whether or not they had prayer.
A preliminary injunction would have a chilling effect on the students and the public, telling them that free speech is prohibited, Burbidge said.
The prayer is intended "to solemnify and dignify the graduation ceremony, that has been found to be an accepted secular purpose by courts across the country," Burbidge said.
He noted that the powers of deity were called upon when Greene's court opened Wednesday morning, as they are every day in federal court.
- Staff writer Angelyn Nelson-Hutchinson contributed to this story.