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Provo • In 1995, a student at Salt Lake City's West High School won a federal court injunction against her school's choir, blocking the group from singing two songs during graduation.
The student was from a Jewish family, and the musical numbers included "The Lord Bless and Keep You" and the Christian pop hit "Friends."
Mormon classmates and community members balked at the lawsuit, and a full-blown controversy ensued.
On graduation day, after two alternate songs were sung, a student took the stage and called on attendees to join him in singing "Friends" in a student-led loophole that sidestepped the court's mandate.
The case is one of many that illustrate the difficult position of public school leaders, who are expected to navigate the legalities of campus free speech and religious expression, Brigham Young University education professor Scott Ferrin said Friday.
While some freedoms are bedrock rights for students, he said, others fall into areas that are less clearly defined by years of court precedent and legal interpretation.
"There's some things the school leaders can and can't change," Ferrin said. "The principal is not the bad guy. The principal, though, he or she has got to figure out how to deal with it."
Advocates for greater religious expression in schools, he said, can potentially hurt their cause by descending on a school in the middle of a controversy.
Instead of "going nuclear," he said, people of faith are better off being "examples of the believer" and gently allowing their critics to come into greater awareness of what is and is not protected speech.
"Don't just show up at PTA or at the school when there's a problem," Ferrin said. "Be there to help all the way along."
Ferrin's comments were part of a workshop on religion in public schools presented during a religious-freedom conference at BYU.
He spoke on the rights of students to express and practice their beliefs, and the rights of parents who object to classroom curriculum that goes against their religious views.
Ferrin said he's concerned about rising national hostility toward religious people. And he credited those attitudes, in part, to questionable research practices by social scientists who oversample psychology students on college campuses and who are unable to interpret the nuances of religious belief.
A study might ask individuals whether they view homosexuality as natural, he said, without asking whether those views affect the way a participant acts toward individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
"There is just bad research that seems to show religious people are bigots," he said. "And it's growing."
One audience member at Ferrin's workshop gave another example of how student-led expression is used to circumvent restriction on school prayer.
A school in Arizona has included prayers at its graduation ceremonies for the past 14 years, he said, because administrators merely invite students to offer a "First Amendment expression," whether that be dancing the jib, playing an accordion or invoking a deity.
"We'll fight them all the way to the Supreme Court because there's a First Amendment and you have freedom of expression," he said.
During the two-day conference, several speakers have commented on the need for faith groups to compromise with their secular opponents to protect religious freedom.
Frequent praise has been given to the so-called "Utah Compromise" of 2015, in which state lawmakers passed a bill banning discrimination of LGBT individuals in housing and employment, while also providing exemptions to religious organizations like BYU and its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But Daniel Mark, an assistant professor at Villanova University, was skeptical that compromise could be replicated in other states.
In states with a more even political split, or where Democrats dominate politics, he said, it's unlikely left-leaning people would be satisfied with the concessions that were offered by Utah Republicans and the Mormon church.
"I'm unconvinced that such an approach will be fruitful in other jurisdictions where the left is far more radical," he said.