Utah school board delays vote on banning volunteers’ religious garb

Thursday, June 18, 1998

A school district in Utah has delayed a final vote on a proposal to bar volunteers from wearing religious clothing while on school grounds.

Two weeks ago, the Davis County School Board voted 4-1 to advance proposed changes to its Religion and Education Policy that permits religious persons to come into the public schools as volunteers regardless of whether they identify themselves with a certain religion. The changes would bar volunteers “from wearing any religious apparel that is intended by the wearer or could reasonably be interpreted by school staff, students, or patrons, to designate the wearer as an official representative of a religious organization.”

School board members voted to change the policy after receiving a complaint from parents that volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—Mormons– had approached their daughter at school and lectured her on the church's practices and beliefs.

The parents, along with a couple of national organizations that promote a strict wall separating church and state, decried the school's policy as a subversion of the establishment clause and urged the board to change or dump the policy.

Even though the school policy already states that volunteers “must maintain strict neutrality regarding religion while performing volunteer work for the schools,” a majority of school board members advanced the policy changes barring religious apparel.

The board was scheduled to vote on the proposed changes at a meeting last night, but delayed consideration to give state education attorneys time to study the policy.

Nancy Fleming, a Davis County education official, told the Ogden Standard-Examiner that a state education attorney's comment to the school board that the proposed changes are constitutionally suspect prompted the board to look more closely at the policy's legality.

Ross Poore, director of policy and compliance for Davis County schools, said that it was not unusual for policy proposals to be studied further before being approved.

“We are a government entity and whenever faced with a claim of a constitutional violation we have a responsibility to investigate,” Poore said. “We would be remiss in not closely examining the policy.”

Poore added that the current policy on religion in Davis County public schools is one of the few in the state and that the proposed changes barring religious clothing were offered to “update, clarify, and define an area that is very sensitive.”

Ray Briscoe, executive director of Utah's Three R's Project (Rights, Responsibilities and Respect), a state initiative to train public school teachers how to deal properly with religious expression, said that he believes the school board wants to avoid a legal fight.

“I personally think the proposed language goes a tad too far,” said Briscoe, a former member of the Davis County School Board. “I have talked with the parents and consider their complaints legitimate. And I want them to feel comfortable that their kids are not going to be influenced by religious folks who are there simply to help in tutoring. Nonetheless, I don't believe religious persons should be singled out to change their dress.”

Poore said that once the volunteers enter school grounds they “become agents of the state” and must “adhere to” the Constitution as all other teachers.

Briscoe said he was working with the school board and state attorneys to come up with new language or suggestions to make the current policy more effective. “One suggestion centers on the making sure volunteers are aware of the policy and that it is adhered to. Anyone that comes to the district to be a volunteer should be required to sign a statement that they have read the policy,” he said.

Since the board's announcement of possible changes to the policy, officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints say they have ceased encouraging their members to be Davis County volunteers.

Poore said he believes the proposal will be back on the school board's agenda in July.