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Legislator wants to ensure religious rights

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A conservative Utah senator who last year challenged evolution lessons in public schools is working up a bill to ensure people's religious freedom "without government interference."

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said the bill would include the First Amendment's freedom of religion clause and aim to allow students to have Bible groups in public schools and religious celebrations and Ten Commandments displays on government property.

He provided few details Wednesday, saying his bill will be made public in early December.

"States have become hostile of religion," Buttars said, and schools and government leaders are afraid to allow for religious expression.

He said courts are inappropriately making laws regarding the issue — he calls that "a judicial activism house of cards" — and that it's time for a state statute to clarify the matter.

"What (the bill is) going to do is put legislation on the books that says you can ... have religious expression anywhere in the country and have government protect it, not fight it," Buttars said.

The Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said it was too early to comment on Buttars' proposal. But legal director Margaret Plane said the group defends the First Amendment and is "absolutely in favor of freedom of religion."

The federal courts often are asked to clarify the First Amendment via lawsuits.

Student-initiated prayer and non-disruptive religious practice in schools have been upheld. Students nationally are gathering for Bible groups, using open classrooms to pray during Muslim Ramadan observances, passing out religious pamphlets to peers, praying as teams before games and gathering near flagpoles for morning prayer, said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Virginia, whose Three R's (rights, responsibility, respect) Project is operating in several Utah schools.

The U.S. Department of Education in 2003 distributed constitutional guidelines for prayer in school as part of the No Child Left Behind mandate. It follows an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, Haynes said, which basically allows student-initiated, spontaneous prayer, free of school administration control, at graduation, assemblies and events.

"The old myth (from) some politicians and televangelists that somehow schools are religious-free zones is ... completely wrong in terms of what's going on in schools today, including in Utah," Haynes said. "You just have to search far and wide for a school like that, because it's illegal to tell kids they can't pray in school."

Yet there has been some gray area for the courts on religion and schools, such as whether graduation prayers can actually be free of school control, Haynes said. The key question is whether the speech is considered school- or state-sponsored.

The courts also gone both ways on Ten Commandments displays in public buildings. They struck them down in Kentucky, as public officials had claimed the monuments intend to promote a religious view, Haynes said. But they upheld them in Texas because they found no religious intent.

Locally, lawsuits filed over Ten Commandments displays in Duchesne and Pleasant Grove were argued this week before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. That issue is over whether a group called Summum should be allowed to erect a monument espousing its Seven Aphorisms next to the Ten Commandments displays, donated decades ago by local civic organizations and placed in or near city parks. The court will respond to the arguments in writing within a few months.

Last winter, Utah legislators passed a resolution reminding schoolchildren they are free to sing Christmas carols, pray and express their religion in public schools under the First Amendment. Sponsoring Sen. Parley Hellewell, R-Orem, said the resolution came from anecdotes that teachers were afraid to have students sing Christmas carols for fear of being sued.

Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education, said there are educators afraid of religious expression, and those overstepping the law — teachers leading students in prayer, for instance — in Utah public schools.

She also said two school districts this past year have asked her office about requests for a Bible group use school buildings. She said if schools allow community groups to access the public buildings, then the Bible group must have equal access. And if schools allow non-curricular student clubs, then they must let students form a Bible club.

But Buttars says the fear of religious expression is pervasive in Utah government, even if courts uphold it.

"You've got to face reality — they're scared to death" of lawsuits, he said.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com