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SCHOOL BOARD CRAFTS POLICY ON RELIGION

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As promised, the Salt Lake City Board of Education delivered a policy intended to deal with concerns about religion in the school curriculum before the start of the fall term.

The board heard nearly two hours of public comment on the proposal before dissecting the draft in an attempt to address numerous concerns raised in the public meeting.The new policy sets up several channels of redress ranging from parent meetings with the teacher, voluntarily taking the issue before school community councils to directly contacting the assistant superintendent of the school district. Under the policy, the superintendent will be the last stop in the administrative complaint process if the matter cannot be remedied earlier.

It also sets up a requirement to review the policy annually with teachers, employees and students.

Nano Podolsky, president of the United Jewish Federation of Utah, told the school board she is concerned that the policy is reactive in nature, dealing with religious freedom issues on a complaint basis rather than ensuring curriculum and employees are sensitive to the diverse makeup of the district's student body.

"If this happens to white, middle-class people in this district, can you imagine what happens to kids of color in this district?" she said.

And Eric Bauchman, father of Rachel Bauch-man, who has lodged complaints about the predominately Christian repertoire of West High's a cappella choir, questioned whether the policy would have made a difference in his daughter's case.

For instance, taking the matter before the school community council would not have been a workable option, he said. "Politically there was a problem with the makeup of the council and the politics involved," Bauchman said.

Bauchman recommended a four-tier system to deal with complaints, starting with mediation, then binding arbitration, employee suspension and, finally, termination of the offending employee.

"The teacher (Richard Tor-ger-son) has not been disciplined for anything that happened this year. It's basically rewarding teachers and students for a certain ugly course of events," he said.

School board attorney John Rob-son said the school board policy was intended to be student-centered. Teacher discipline issues are handled under the district's contract with teachers, he said.

The issue surfaced last winter when West High sophomore Rachel Bauchman complained about the predominately Christian repertoire selected for the school's holiday concert. Rachel Bauchman, who is Jewish, was a member of the school's a cappella choir at the time.

Eric Bauchman said he requested but was not granted a meeting with Torgerson when his daughter's concerns surfaced last winter. Superintendent Darline Robles said she offered a meeting between the parties this spring, but the Bauchmans declined.

In May, Rachel Bauchman sought and was granted a federal court order prohibiting the choir from performing two "devotional" songs at the school's graduation ceremony. Some students and parents sang one of the two songs anyway, an act of civil disobedience that captured national media attention.

In addition to seeking the court order, Rachel Bauchman's attorneys filed a lawsuit on the issue.

Chris Allen of the Society of Separationists said the events that transpired at West High School's graduation ceremony were indicative of the divisiveness religious promotion creates in the schools and community.

"The Rachel Bauchman case is not about mentioning God or Lord. It has nothing to do with teaching about religion. It's about Utah schools using their choir programs to promote churches and Christianity, usually the Mormon version of Christianity," Allen said.

The tone of testimony at the public hearing indicates the issue continues to divide the community. The Rev. Max Glenn, executive director of Shared Ministries of Utah, called for open dialogue. "The resolution is not making each other `wrong' and/or simply being tolerant of differing viewpoints and beliefs," he said.

The issue has apparently taken its toll on the school board as well. Board member Tab Uno abruptly left the meeting after a brief exchange with school vice president Roger Thompson. The dispute stemmed over Uno's concerns about the suitability of alternate school assignments for students who seek a waiver of classroom assignments or activities that offend them.

Thompson later apologized for the tone of his conversation with Uno.