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ELDER OAKS SAYS LEGALLY PROTECTED PLACE OF PRAYER IS MISUNDERSTOOD

SHARE ELDER OAKS SAYS LEGALLY PROTECTED PLACE OF PRAYER IS MISUNDERSTOOD

A decision to keep prayer out of Jordan School District's graduation exercises is an example of the misunderstanding about the legally protected place of public prayers, a member of LDS Church's Council of the Twelve said Friday.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks told participants at a symposium about teaching religion in public schools that the controversy about prayer in public places suffers from a failure to distinguish what is governmental from what is merely public."A decision outlawing prayers in public schools, which are tax-supported government institutions responsible for instructing impressionable young people, does not forbid prayers by and for adults in settings that are merely public, such as town meetings, patriotic programs, PTA functions and even high school graduations. Though offered in a public place, such prayers are personal, not governmental devotions," Elder Oaks said.

The former Utah Supreme Court justice said the statements are his own opinion and don't reflect the opinion of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Jordan School Board decided last month to ban prayers from graduation ceremonies after two Brighton High School students filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming prayers offered at the June graduation were "denominational" since they mentioned the name of Jesus Christ. The board dropped such prayers after it said it could not afford a lawsuit.

"It is not my purpose to criticize the Jordan School District's decision. Viewing its predicament in isolation, the district may have made a defensible choice in how to use its scarce resources. But can educators afford to view such an issue in isolation?" Elder Oaks asked. "The consequence of knuckling under to this kind of economic and legal pressure could be to give the force of law to frivolous legal position. A small, but determined minority can use the cost of litigation as an instrument of intimidation."

He described how similar controversy had forced the Salt Lake County Commission to ask representatives of various faiths to their meetings. He also noted that after the Jordan decision, the Granite School superintendent announced there would be "generic prayers" at graduations in his district.

"I am disappointed that anyone of any faith would abandon his chosen manner of prayer and offer what is referred to as a `generic' prayer because someone else has threatened a lawsuit," Elder Oaks said.

Referring to the first Supreme Court decision about school prayer which said that government officials could not write a prayer for students, Elder Oaks said it is "no part of the business of government in this country to prescribe prayers or to censor them."

He said prayer is too sacred for its content to be the subject of a lawsuit, and said the Supreme Court has not yet outlawed prayers at legislative and other assemblies or public meetings.

"I would not even consider trying to influence a person of another faith to change the content of a public prayer to conform to my preference, and I object to anyone using legal pressures to influence the content of my prayers or those of any others," he said.

At the symposium sponsored by US WEST and the Williamsburg Charter Foundation, Oaks said he supports the foundation's efforts to help offset hostility and indifference that has been characterized in many court decisions, media accounts and public understanding for more than 25 years.

The Williamsburg Charter Foundation, a non-profit organization, has brought together religious leaders, professors and politicians of both liberal and conservative leanings to reaffirm the nation's commitment to freedom of religion.

The Williamsburg Charter was signed by a wide variety of religious, academic and educational officials in June 1988. Oaks represented the LDS Church at the signing.

Oaks said that since the initial school prayer decision in the early 1960s, forces have been unleashed that have finally resulted in instances where government power has been used to prevent the free exercise of religion.

He voiced support for the Charter Foundation's public school curriculum that teaches about religion's role in history and current American life. The curriculum will be piloted in public schools in California, North Carolina, New York, Michigan and Maryland in 1990.