Nathan Christiansen and his friends say it's just as well that 1,500 LDS seminary students displaced by a fire will be bused to other digs by Monday, because seminary isn't seminary without hymns and prayers.
West Jordan High School and Jordan School District officials on Thursday answered many inquiries about their decision to let seminary classes meet inside the high school for two days. The consideration followed a fire that destroyed a seminary building adjacent to the school, at 8000 S. 2700 West, Wednesday afternoon.The district took every precaution to protect church and state separation, said district spokeswoman Patty Dahl, telling church leaders no religious worship could take place at the school. Still, many people called the district's Sandy office.
"There is a real concern that church and state laws would be violated by this arrangement," Dahl said.
The school and district agreed to provide temporary housing for the students Thursday and Friday. "It's a temporary arrangement for the good of the students. It's an emergency," Dahl said.
Doug Bates, counsel for the State Office of Higher Education, said all the worry is unnecessary. "It's not illegal as long as it's a temporary accommodation."
Case law, not written law, offers guidelines on the subject. "Legally, they could go into the school and they could have their songs and they could have their prayers," Bates said.
But Chris Allen, of the Society of Separationists, says the Utah Constitution clearly separates the two activities, even in an emergency.
The rule that applies to this issue states: "Religious classes shall not be held in school buildings or on school property in any way that permits public money or property to be applied to, or that requires public employees to be entangled with, any religious worship, exercise, or instruction."
"State officials are consciously trying to circumvent the law because they're only doing it for a day or two," Allen said. "It's indicative of their respect for the law regarding church and state regulation. They'll look for any excuse to get around it."
The school could have sent the students to a study hall during this time - allowing students to chose scripture study - but seminary teachers' involvement makes the violation stand out, he said.
Allen said the society has 700 Utahns on its mailing list.
ACLU executive director Carol Gnade spoke out against the arrangement Thursday.
A long-term arrangement might cause a problem, but not a couple of days or weeks. "There's no court that would prohibit it," said Bates.
There are several cases where schools have burned and classes have relocated in churches, Bates said, and alternately where church gatherings have been relocated to schools during emergencies or renovation.
"The problem we've got with this one is that it's during the school day when other classes are in session."
Seminary instructors gave students explicit instructions Thursday as they filled the West Jordan High School auditorium during time allotted for religious studies: No hymns, no religious singing, no praying.
Christiansen, the high school's senior class president, said seminary leaders explained separation of church and state philosophies.
"No one was moaning and groaning too much about it, but that's why we were just hoping to get it moved somewhere else," he said. "It doesn't feel like seminary without those activities."
By late Thursday, LDS Church officials had arranged to bus the students 10 blocks away to the West Jordan Stake Center at 7000 S. 2700 West, said church spokesman Don LeFevre.