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SUIT AGAINST VAN DAM OVER PRAYER BRIEF MAY BE DROPPED

Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam stole the thunder from a suit filed against him by the Utah Society of Separationists.

Now void of its sound and fury, the suit will probably be dismissed by the 3rd District Court.The society sued Paul Van Dam recently when it learned that Van Dam planned to file a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Rhode Island's pro-prayer position.

The society, which advocates the separation of church and state, said Van Dam announced plans to file the pro-prayer brief in a letter to the editor that ran in the Salt Lake Tribune.

State officials deny that claim, saying the brief Van Dam talked about would not take a position on prayer.

"He never planned to take sides for or against prayer. He wanted to remain neutral," said assistant Utah Attorney General John McAllister.

Either way, the point is moot. The deadline for filing the brief passed before Van Dam could collect all the information he needed to put one together.

Now Van Dam's staff wants the 3rd District Court to dismiss the Separationists' suit.

In its suit, the society accused Van Dam of violating the state constitution by using state resources to promote religious exercise. The pro-prayer brief the society expected Van Dam to file constituted promotion of religion, the suit claimed.

Brian Barnard, attorney for the society, will not oppose the state's motion to dismiss his suit.

"Our purpose was to prevent the state from spending any more taxpayer money in support of Rhode Island," he said. "Based on what they have told us now, we have accomplished what we wanted."

Barnard doesn't expect so amiable a denouement in a second suit the society filed against the Utah State Board of Education at the same time it filed the suit against Van Dam.

The board sent $10,000 to the Providence, R.I., school board to help defray the expense of taking the prayer case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Providence school board filed an appeal with the high court after a lower court ruled that a prayer offered by a rabbi at a middle school graduation held in Providence was unconstitutional.

The Utah Society of Separationists claims that sending the money to Providence also violated the clause in the state constitution that prohibits the use of state resources for the promotion of religious exercise.

Barnard considered the board's action an obvious violation of the state constitution. "They are using taxpayer money to support a religious exercise - albeit an exercise in another state."

The state board took the money from its discretionary fund and sent it in December. Education officials claim they helped the Providence board fund its appeal because a Supreme Court ruling could also resolve a similar question in Utah.

The Utah Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit in federal court a year ago challenging the practice of graduation prayer in Granite and Alpine school districts.

U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene has stayed the ACLU's suit pending the high court's ruling on the Rhode Island matter.