Quantcast

Jewish Journal

JewishJournal.com

July 2, 1998

The Meaning of Religious Freedom in Utah

By J.J. Goldberg

http://www.jewishjournal.com/old_stories/article/the_meaning_of_religious_freedom_in_utah_19980703

Much of the school was outraged. All spring, Bauchman was subjected to ridicule and abuse from students -- and, allegedly, from the music teacher. Graduation day became an impromptu anti-Bauchman protest. Parents and students joined hands to sing the forbidden song and shouted abuse at the principal when he tried to stop them. The salutatorian, another Jewish student, was hooted off the stage in tears.


The Meaning of Religious Freedom in Utah

If you're like me, you probably read news reports about religious freedom the way you read the latest news on global warming: plowing dutifully through, eyes half-glazed over, certain it concerns you but not quite sure how.

If so, there's one case you should watch for in the coming weeks. Early this month, the Supreme Court is supposed to decide whether to hear an appeal in a case from Utah. It has the Jews there tied up in knots.

From a constitutional point of view, the Utah case is piddling stuff, especially after a month like we've just had. This was the month that Wisconsin's top court cleared the way for our nation's first legal parochial school aid program. Just days earlier, a school-prayer amendment won a majority in the House of Representatives, though not the two-thirds required to doctor the Constitution. In Idaho, a federal appeals court upheld a high-school graduation ceremony that lets students lead their fellows in prayer. On every front, America's basic understanding of the First Amendment seems up for grabs this summer, more than it's been in decades.

The Utah case, by contrast, will turn on a technicality. The justices are being asked to rule on a question of courtroom procedure. And, yet, the story is worth recounting. It reminds us why those other cases matter.

The case involves Rachel Bauchman, a young Jew from Salt Lake City who once hoped to major in music. Entering her sophomore year at West High School in 1994, she found that the choir class, required of music majors, seemed to specialize in Christian devotional music. She protested, but nobody listened. Then she got a court order, barring a particularly pointed Christian anthem that was to be performed at the school's 1995 graduation ceremony.

Much of the school was outraged. All spring, Bauchman was subjected to ridicule and abuse from students -- and, allegedly, from the music teacher. Graduation day became an impromptu anti-Bauchman protest. Parents and students joined hands to sing the forbidden song and shouted abuse at the principal when he tried to stop them. The salutatorian, another Jewish student, was hooted off the stage in tears.

The ugliness won national headlines. Afterward, though, nothing happened. Bauchman asked the court to take action, but the judge ruled that the school had done its part when it banned the song. The rest, it seems, was just private unpleasantness.

That fall, Bauchman transferred to a private school. She still couldn't major in music, since the state required her to go through the same music teacher. Over the next two years, her attorneys gathered evidence that the 1995 graduation dispute was part of a pattern of religious intolerance fostered by the music teacher. The court ruled the new evidence inadmissible. Bauchman took it to federal appeals court and lost.

Last April, as a college freshman in Washington, Bauchman appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices are expected to decide this month whether to hear her appeal. If they do, then next year, they will decide whether she can go back to Utah and take on the music teacher again.

You might think Jews in Salt Lake City are raring to go at it again. You'd be wrong. Bauchman's protest split the community down the middle.

"Most of the synagogue was against it," says Sherry Rosenblatt, whose daughter, Erin, was in choir with Bauchman. "They wanted to keep it quiet. They didn't want us to make a big stink."

The reasons aren't hard to guess. Jews in Salt Lake City number only 3,500 or so in a city of 160,000. Their neighbors are mostly Mormons, who see Utah somewhat the way Jews see Israel: theirs. Religious minorities try not to get in the middle of it.

"We do the church-state thing in Salt Lake City every day when we wake up," says Nano Podolsky, past president of the local Jewish federation. Her daughter, Laura, was in West High's 1995 graduating class.

Relations between Jews and Mormons, curiously, are traditionally excellent. That's partly because Mormons consider themselves part of the Ten Lost Tribes, making Jews their "brothers." "Basically, the Jews in this state work very well with the Mormon community and the Mormon church," says Roberta Grunauer, who was executive director of the city's Jewish Federation in 1995.

The Bauchman case disrupted all that. How badly depends on your perspective. To Grunauer, the case is "ancient history." She believes that the community would have been better off without it.

Others hope that Rachel comes back for Round 2. "I say the bigger stink, the better, so people are aware of it, for God's sake," says Sherry Rosenblatt.

For the rest of us, there's a lesson in Salt Lake City, but it's not a simple one. We like to think we've come a long way in America. It was scant decades ago that the Lord's Prayer was standard fare in America's classrooms. Today, we take it for granted that Jews and Judaism stand on an equal footing with every other religion. The big debates now are over how to protect that equality -- whether to stand firm on strict church-state separation, or bend a bit when other needs arise.

What happened in Salt Lake City reminds us that many Americans haven't gotten there yet, and don't want to. Much of America between the coasts is a patchwork of monochromatic communities that take majority rule very seriously, and expect minorities to adapt.

For small Jewish communities from Utah to Alabama, the question isn't how to defend equality but how to achieve it. The Bauchman case is a reminder that achieving equality isn't a simple matter of demanding your rights. It also involves convincing the majority to grant those rights.

Did Rachel Bauchman's fight improve things in Salt Lake City? Maybe. "We received no commencement complaints this year from local school districts," says Rabbi Frederick Wenger of Congregation Kol Ami, the towns' main synagogue. "That means either the school districts have learned something, or there aren't any Jewish kids as gutsy as Rachel."

Some families aren't betting on change. Of Nano Podolsky's three children, two are unlikely to.

JewishJournal.com is produced by TRIBE Media Corp., a non-profit media company whose mission is to inform, connect and enlighten community
through independent journalism. TRIBE Media produces the 150,000-reader print weekly Jewish Journal in Los Angeles – the largest Jewish print
weekly in the West – and the monthly glossy Tribe magazine (TribeJournal.com). Please support us by clicking here.

© Copyright 2014 Tribe Media Corp.
All rights reserved. JewishJournal.com is hosted by Nexcess.net
Web Design & Development by Hop Studios 0.1919 / 38