As Richfield High School administrators praised students who pitched in to pull off Thursday's graduation at the local LDS tabernacle, the American Civil Liberties Union grumbled.
An early morning fire at the school's gymnasium forced administrators to look elsewhere to hold commencement ceremonies just hours away.Principal Teresa Robinson decided on the Sevier Stake Tabernacle, which was built in the late 1920s by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She said it was the only building that could house the 4,000 people expected to attend the ceremonies.
That's no excuse for violating the federal Constitution, said Carol Gnade, executive director of the ACLU in Utah.
"We recognize there are limited alternatives for small communities, but the solution is not to break the law," she said.
Gnade said holding a public school graduation in a church building violates the Constitution's separation of church and state.
The tabernacle is used for church meetings, but concerts and other public events are held in the building, said city manager Woody Farnsworth.
"As far as I know, I can't think of another location in the city where they could have handled the numbers" attending the graduation, said Farnsworth.
He added that the religious overtones aren't an issue in the predominantly Mormon central Utah town.
Graduations were held in the tabernacle until the numbers of parents and students attending required a move in the late 1980s to the school gymnasium.
Authorities suspect arson in the gymnasium blaze that was ignited some time after 1 a.m. Damage was estimated at $300,000.
The gym sustained smoke damage, and its floor and ceiling will have to be replaced.
The fire started in three places - on bleachers at both ends of the gym and at the podium at the front of the room. A trail of fuel tied the three points together, said Fire Chief Craig Ross.
Gnade said the ACLU won't take any formal action against Sevier County school officials. But she said she will send a letter to district officials advising them to have contingency plans that comply with federal law when disaster strikes.
Thursday's episode is not the first church-state controversy for the ACLU involving LDSChurch tabernacles found in many Utah towns.
The Legislature wanted to meet in the Logan Tabernacle in 1994. When the ACLU contended that was mixing church and state, legislators argued the tabernacle was used for secular civic activities.
The opposite argument was used last September to deny a St. George restaurant a liquor license because the establishment was located too close to the local tabernacle.
When the LDS Church's presiding bishopric said the St. George Tabernacle was a church, it vindicated the ACLU's position in the Logan case and other instances, Gnade said.
"It's a private building owned by a church," she said.