SALT LAKE CITY — It is not a big deal to sing Christian devotional songs with a choir. Unless, of course, this is a public school choir; unless, of course, you are Jewish.
Then it becomes a very big deal.
Rachel Bauchman, a 16-year-old student at West High School in Salt Lake City, objected to some of the songs she was singing in the choir, touching off a bitter dispute in this predominantly Mormon state.
Some say Rachel and her family are trying to stifle religious expression. But she and others say something must be done to protect those who do not share the majority's beliefs.
"I'm doing this for every minority kid who's going to be coming up in this school in the future," she said. "I don't think any kid should feel like a second-class citizen, particularly in the public school choir class."
Rachel, a member of the National Honor Society and the student government, signed up for choir, a class taken for credit. But she became uncomfortable with the Christian songs in the repertoire, and she complained. Nothing happened.
"If we had gotten any sort of understanding, some acknowledgment from the teacher, it would have made a difference. We requested meetings, we went by the book, but there was nothing in return," said her mother, Cheryl Bauchman. "We were willing to compromise."
On May 31, the Bauchmans filed a federal civil rights suit alleging the school and its choir teacher, Richard Torgerson, violated Rachel's right to a public education free from religious coercion.
They secured a federal injunction to prevent the choir from singing two devotional songs at the school's June 8 graduation: "Friends" and "The Lord Bless and Keep You."
But at graduation, the choir sang the two substitute songs and then a student called for the those attending to sing "Friends," a Christian pop hit from 1982.
"Friends are friends forever if the Lord's the Lord of them," they sang.
"It was a conspiracy, a slap in the face of Rachel," said Priscilla Kawakami, one of Rachel Bauchman's supporter.
Jim McConkie, an attorney representing parents who defend the choir director and school, said the Mormons who sang at graduation were not aiming their anger at the Jewish community or non-Mormons. "They were mad at a court that they think is taking God out of the schools."
But there was more. Earlier, when Rachel Bauchman ran for junior class president, her campaign signs were defaced with swastikas and an ethnic slur. She received an anti-Semitic phone call.
The controversy inspired diatribes on radio talk shows, and both Salt Lake daily newspapers have been inundated with letters from readers. More than 72% of those polled for the Deseret News said they supported the decision to sing "Friends" at the graduation ceremony.
Mormon Church officials, who have striven to smooth relations with other churches in recent years, apparently saw the explosive potential and tried months ago to keep a lid on it.
Attorney Bruce Cohne confirmed that in a spring meeting he attended with Rabbi Frederick Wenger, high Mormon officials mentioned the case. "Questions were raised in the generic sense of, what can we do about the situation? Is there a way this matter can be toned down?" said Cohne.
Cheryl Bauchman says the entire fracas could have been avoided. She blames an "ineffectual" school administration, a group of choir members' parents and Torgerson.
Former choir students say Torgerson, an ardent Mormon, has always blurred the church-state line. Torgerson declined to comment until the suit is resolved.
Amy Morris said she often was blessed in the name of Jesus Christ while performing at Mormon worship services during her three years in the choir.
During a spring, 1994, tour to Oregon, the choir performed at a Mormon fireside service in which several students were asked to give their testimonies that the Mormon church is the one true church, Morris said.
Local church members hosted the choir in their homes, and some non-Mormon choir members were asked to read aloud from the Book of Mormon.
At the end of the tour, about 25 choir members, about half of them Mormons, signed a petition asking for an end to these religious practices. Morris said when she and a friend took the appeal to Torgerson, he yelled at them.
"He said that we should walk in his shoes, that we were trying to restrict his religious freedom, that the Supreme Court was wrong and that if people didn't want to hear prayers at graduation they should plug their ears," Morris said. "He told us we were wrong to be hurt."
Rachel intends to return to West High for her junior and senior years, though she will not rejoin the choir. Her family moved here from suburban New York less than two years ago, seeking beautiful vistas, summers without humidity, a slower pace of life. They got the first two.
"I've lived in Texas, Connecticut and New York, and it took a teacher from Utah to show me what bigotry is all about," she said.