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DID WEST HIGH IGNORE STUDENT’S RIGHTS?

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Officials at Utah's West High School failed to protect the First Amendment rights of a student who was required to sing Christian songs as part of an a capella choir's curriculum, an attorney told an appeals court.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case of former West High student Rachel Bauchman, who contends choir director Richard Torgerson used his position to promote his LDS Church beliefs.Bauchman, who is Jewish, filed suit against the school, alleging school officials did nothing to prevent Torgerson from including songs in the choir's program that promote religion. The lawsuit also seeks to prevent the West High choir from performing in churches.

Bauchman, now a senior, is attending a private school this semester, according to her attorney, Andrew Hruska.

"It's the school district who should protect Rachel and lay down the law," Hruska told the court. "She's been asked to be a spokesman for religion and that's a substantial burden on her constitutional rights."

The two judges who heard arguments from Hruska and attorneys for the school district took the case under advisement. A third judge was ill and did not attend Wednesday's hearing but will take part in the decision.

A federal judge dismissed Bauchman's lawsuit in September 1995, but she went back to court this year to amend it. In May, that action was dismissed as well, so Bauchman took her case to the 10th Circuit.

The school has denied that it or Torgerson did anything wrong.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Dan Larsen, representing the school district, told the appeals court there never was any discussion in Torgerson's class of specific prayers or religion. He said the songs in question were mostly Christmas music.

"A song is not a prayer and not an overt religious exercise," Larsen said.

But Hruska countered that Torgerson was openly trying to promote his religious beliefs and that the school district condoned it.

"It doesn't take a great leap of faith to see that Mr. Torgerson and the government (school) are promoting religion," he said.

In dismissing Bauchman's lawsuit last spring, U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene said the alleged conduct of school officials did not constitute the establishment or endorsement of religion.

Greene also refused to bar the singing of religious songs at the school's 1995 graduation, and Bauchman and her parents took the case to the 10th Circuit, which directed school administration to drop the songs from the program.

Defiant students and some parents sang one of the songs anyway.

Greene said there was no evidence to support the contention that the school selected exclusively religious devotional songs at the graduation ceremony.

He also said it did not appear Torgerson assisted students in violating the earlier court order prohibiting the performance of one of those songs at the ceremony.