“The Meaning of Religious Freedom in Utah” by J.J. Goldberg

Reference: Jewish Journal

July 2, 1998

If you’re like me, you probably read news reports about religious freedom the way you read the latest news on global warming: plowing dutifully through, eyes half-glazed over, certain it concerns you but not quite sure how.

If so, there’s one case you should watch for in the coming weeks. Early this month, the Supreme Court is supposed to decide whether to hear an appeal in a case from Utah. It has the Jews there tied up in knots.

From a constitutional point of view, the Utah case is piddling stuff, especially after a month like we’ve just had. This was the month that Wisconsin’s top court cleared the way for our nation’s first legal parochial school aid program. Just days earlier, a school-prayer amendment won a majority in the House of Representatives, though not the two-thirds required to doctor the Constitution. In Idaho, a federal appeals court upheld a high-school graduation ceremony that lets students lead their fellows in prayer. On every front, America’s basic understanding of the First Amendment seems up for grabs this summer, more than it’s been in decades.

The Utah case, by contrast, will turn on a technicality. The justices are being asked to rule on a question of courtroom procedure. And, yet, the story is worth recounting. It reminds us why those other cases matter.

The case involves Rachel Bauchman, a young Jew from Salt Lake City who once hoped to major in music. Entering her sophomore year at West High School in 1994, she found that the choir class, required of music majors, seemed to specialize in Christian devotional music. She protested, but nobody listened. Then she got a court order, barring a particularly pointed Christian anthem that was to be performed at the school’s 1995 graduation ceremony.

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