The victors were muted and the losers devastated after a federal judge ruled that Orem High School may hold prayer at its graduation ceremonies this year.
Utah ACLU director Michele Parish believes Utah schools will interpret that ruling as permission to flout the U.S. Constitution."I suspect the schools are going to feel that they have carte blanche to engage in unconstitutional practices. That's very dangerous and would be a mistake on the part of school districts in the state," she warned.
U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene's ruling Wednesday stunned the American Civil Liberties Union, which had expected to triumph in its attempt to get a preliminary injunction prohibiting graduation prayer until the U.S. Supreme Court could rule on its constitutionality.
"I'm just sick about it," said Parish, questioning Greene's conclusion that graduation prayer in Alpine School District is non-sectarian.
"Alpine has had Mormon prayers for 79 years, yet they can say that their prayers are non-sectarian? I am really upset about it."
Alpine School District does not inquire into the religious beliefs of the students who offer graduation prayers, said Brinton R. Burbidge, attorney for the district.
Greene ruled that the ACLU failed to meet one major standard in its bid for a preliminary injunction: it failed to convince him that their suit against Alpine and Granite school districts had a "substantial likelihood of success."
The ACLU sued the two school districts last summer over prayers offered at Granite, Olympus and Orem high schools' graduation ceremonies last June. The suit was later amended to include students and teachers who would be offended by prayers held at this year's ceremonies, too.
Greene postponed a trial on the suit itself until the U.S. Supreme Court decides a similar case out of Rhode Island. So the ACLU sought a preliminary injunction preventing prayer at the three schools until the high court ruled.
Students at Granite and Olympus voted this week not to have prayer at their schools, making an injunction unnecessary.
In Wednesday's ruling, Greene noted that the Fifth and Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeals had recently upheld graduation prayer as constitutional. In his opinion, a U.S. Supreme Court decision could go either way on the issue.
Parish disagreed with Greene's conclusion."The preponderance of cases have supported our arguments. But Judge Greene decided that because a few cases went the other direction, we didn't meet our burden. That was his call. I'm sure he'll get a lot of pats on the back for it. I'm just really, really disappointed."
Burbidge saw Greene's ruling as a stand for freedom of choice. "I'm pleased that our students will be able to the make the decision (on graduation prayer) themselves and not have it imposed on them. I think that's the substance of today's ruling."
Greene used the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Marsh vs. Chambers to help him make his ruling. In the Marsh case, the justices said a religious practice must be looked at in its historical context. If the exercise has sufficient history to take on a secular meaning, it does not violate the First Amendment.
One example is the opening statement "God save the Constitution and this honorable court" uttered each morning in federal courts across the land.
Greene noted in his ruling that schools in Alpine District had been holding graduation prayer since 1912, and the prayers may now have a value more secular than religious.
Parish said the ruling placed the 40 students at Orem High School who voted against prayer this year in the agonizing position of "foregoing their own graduation or violating their own consciences. I can't think of anything more unfair than the school district forcing that kind of choice on young people."