Utah school board bars some religious clothing of volunteers

Monday, August 10, 1998

A public school board in Utah has decided to bar from school grounds volunteers wearing religious garb that the board contends could be disruptive to students or contains a message promoting religion.

The Davis County School Board voted in June to consider altering the district's Religion and Education Policy after two parents complained that Mormon missionaries had approached their daughter and given a lengthy explanation of their church – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. At the time, the policy permitted volunteers to perform public services such as tutoring on school grounds regardless of whether they identified themselves with a certain religion.

After weeks of debate and study, the school board agreed last week to change the policy to allow religious clothing only “if it is required by a person's religion, is part of the person's ordinary work dress and would not be disruptive of the school environment and does not contain a proselytizing message.” Additionally, the policy now requires all school volunteers who regularly interact with students to wear district-approved name tags and to sign a form promising not to proselytize.

Before approving the changes, the school board considered banning religious clothing such as clergymen's collars, nuns' habits or church name tags. After citizens and some constitutional lawyers suggested such action would hamper religious liberty and speech, the board decided against it.

While the new policy permits such things as collars worn by Roman Catholic priests, it does not permit the black and white “Elder” or “Sister” name tags worn by Mormon missionaries. The policy, does, however, allow Davis County principals to refer to Mormon missionaries by their religious titles on school grounds. The county's school principals are charged with monitoring the volunteers and will be given training in September on the new policy.

Ray Briscoe, executive director of Utah's Three R's Project (Rights, Responsibilities and Respect), a state initiative to train public school teachers to deal properly with religious expression, said he would have liked the policy to protect Mormons' right to wear their religious titles. However, he still believes the policy treats religion fairly.

“If principals administer the policy fairly, then I think the policy is good,” said Briscoe, a former member of the Davis County School Board. “The Mormon church does not send missionaries into schools to proselytize — they just don't do that. To ask them not to use their titles is inappropriate.”

Briscoe said it appeared that the school board had bent over backward to appease those in the district who might have sued unless changes were made to the policy.

Nonetheless, Briscoe was pleased that the policy does not include a total ban on all religious clothing or titles. “I believe there were groups of people who want all religion out of schools that would have pressed for a stricter policy.”

Darrell White, Davis County's school superintendent, said the changes were unanimously adopted by the school board and would help clarify the situation for volunteers.

“It strengthens what we are doing and avoids the kind of issues that led to this review,” White told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Shortly after the school board announced its decision to consider altering the policy, the Mormon church pulled its missionaries from the Davis schools.