Freethought Today, October 1996


Rachel Bauchman Versus Utah

This speech was delivered at the nineteenth annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin, on October 12, 1996.

By Rachel Bauchman

My story began when I enrolled at West High School at the beginning of my sophomore year. I chose to transfer to West High because it is the only school in Utah that offers the International Baccalaureate Program, which is an academically rigorous program designed to enable students to enter certain colleges and universities as a sophomore. Before school started, I had arranged a date to set up my class schedule with my counselor. I inquired about the different choir classes that West High offered as I loved to sing and had been a member of a choir since the first grade. The counselor suggested the A Capella Choir because the students in it were of my age group and performance level. I was informed that I needed to speak with Mr. Torgerson, the teacher of all the choir classes, as I needed to audition in order to enter the class. I was successfully admitted into the choir for that year and was on my way. The first month and a half passed in class and things were going fine. Sure, there were pieces which were religious in nature but not to an overwhelming extent.

In October we received our repertoire for the "Christmas" concerts. I noticed that it consisted of ten songs all praising Jesus as the Lord, Savior and King. We're also talking contemporary Christian songs here -- not Handel's Messiah or Vivaldi's Gloria or anything by Brahms, Mozart or Bach. I didn't feel that as a Jew I could honestly and in good conscience sing these particular pieces. They made me extremely uncomfortable. I wouldn't have felt as uncomfortable singing just one or two of those selections, but the fact of the matter was that all of these pieces were praising a man, Jesus, whom I don't believe is the Messiah. I respect Jesus as a historical figure but not to the point where I want to worship him every day in class. This is a public school supposedly devoted to teaching people of all faiths including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, etc.

I explained my concerns to my parents regarding the repertoire. Also, the major performances for November and December were to be held either in Catholic or Presbyterian churches or Mormon places of worship or church-owned property. Approximately eight major concerts in all. I asked my father to write a letter to Mr. Torgerson explaining our concerns and asking to meet with him. We had hoped to make Mr. Torgerson aware of our concern that using his classroom to further his religious beliefs and attitudes was inappropriate in a public school environment. Let me explain something here. Mr. Torgerson is a devout Mormon and has made it clear on several occasions to the A Cappella choir that his religion is the only "true" religion. One example was when he turned off the lights in class and instructed us to visualize Jesus on the cross dying for our sins!

Anyway, Torgerson's reaction to my father's letter was extremely shocking and very unprofessional, to say the least! He gave my father's letter to a parent who is the head of the Friends of the A Cappella Choir, which is a parent support group. That same parent then made 130 copies of my father's letter and sent it along with a nasty cover letter of his own to every single one of the 130 students in the A Cappella Choir and their parents. The offending parent insulted my father as well as our intentions in his letter, without ever having met my father, or myself, for that matter. This certainly is not the way to create a constructive dialogue between teacher and parent.

Well, as our concerns were so publicly derided and ridiculed, we requested help next from the Assistant Principal of Academics and Curriculum and after running into a dead end there, with the Principal. The Principal did set up a meeting between Mr. Torgerson and my father, however Torgerson never showed up nor did he acknowledge the meeting in any way. The Principal of our school then just shrugged the whole matter off.

We next contacted the Minority Rights Compliance officer for the Board of Education, then the Superintendent of Schools, then the School Board itself and finally, the State Superintendent. They all just listened, nodded their heads a few times and then nothing. Letter after letter, phone call after phone call and absolutely nothing.

I really shouldn't say absolutely nothing because by this time, the threats, accusations, rumors, religious slurs and all the other fun stuff was starting to become an everyday occurrence, growing in intensity. Not only was this happening in school and during classes, especially in choir class, but I was also harassed at my home through phone calls. I was told to go back to Israel, called a Dirty Jew, Jew bitch, and informed that it was too bad Hitler didn't finish "the job." My motives, personality, physical appearance, religious beliefs, citizenship status, my parents, you name it, were discussed, debated and bandied about on radio talk shows, on television newscasts, and in newspaper articles. I was rarely, if ever, asked my views and reasons about what was happening. I was being ostracized and vilified, a tactic used in Utah quite frequently for those who have the temerity to question anything, especially anything having to do with religion!

Obviously trying to work within the system was getting us nowhere. My dad then decided to ask the ACLU in Salt Lake for help. They couldn't do anything for us at that time as they did not have a staff attorney. My dad then tried the ACLU in New York. They turned us down -- no reason given. The same thing happened at several other organizations. Finally, through a friend, we were given the name of the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty or PEARL. Given the same information as the ACLU and other organizations, PEARL agreed to help us. PEARL later obtained pro bono legal assistance from the firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. Locating such a firm was not an easy task.

Well, to get back to what was going on in choir class. Apparently word must have gotten back to Mr. Torgerson to even out the "Christmas" repertoire because he added two new songs the day before the Thanksgiving holiday. Imagine my disbelief when I learned that these two songs were associated with Judaism and Israel! The songs were "Bashana Haba'ah," an Israeli pop-folk song, and "Hanerot Halalu," which is about Hanukah. Apparently, they just didn't get it! My whole objection was that the repertoire was entirely religious in nature. Throwing in two Jewish songs hoping to shut me up was not only embarrassing but insulting as well. I'm uncomfortable having to act as an agent promoting any religion, including my own, in a public school environment.

The point is that at the very least the repertoire could have been divided equally between those songs of a religious nature (all types) and those that are secular. Believe it or not, there are more secular A Cappella pieces available in music catalogues than religious ones. I know; we checked with the publishers of the sheet music we were using and got their catalogues.

I was called into Mr. Torgerson's office one day in early December. He told me that he would give me an A for the class and an A in citizenship as well if I would go sit in the library for the rest of the month, if I was so uncomfortable, and that I could return to class in January. I guess I really was an outcast! I had felt like one before; now it was a fact. I agreed to sit out the rest of the semester as by that time I needed the break from being continually browbeaten in a class for an hour and a half every other day! That's not to say that the abuse stopped during the rest of the day. Just during my library time. Well, I somehow got through that awful time in my life and was now more determined than ever not to give up! No public school student should have to go through what I experienced.

I went back to class in January. [There were] a few friends in that class who were very sympathetic to what I was being put through. I could never walk into choir class alone. Even when I was accompanied by one of my friends, at least one person would go out of their way to insult me. There were so many occasions when I just wanted to transfer out of the class, but I knew that I wasn't the one who was wrong -- they were.

You know, when I first told my parents about what was happening in the very beginning of the year, I didn't think that anyone would mind because all I wanted was more diversity in the program. But the funny thing is, I've lived in Texas, Connecticut and New York without any problems, but it took a teacher and his students from Utah to show me what bigotry is all about.

Every year, the choir class takes a spring trip. At the beginning of this year, at the school's open house, Mr. Torgerson announced to the parents in attendance that the choir might not be able to take a trip this year because of complaints about the previous year's trip. Several parents spoke up with remarks like "it's too bad a few kids can spoil a good time" and "what do a few little complaints matter." Apparently, these "little complaints" were about using the choir class as a Mormon missionary body. The class was promoted as a Mormon choir, performing in Mormon churches and during Mormon religious services, with students of the choir bearing "testimony" that the Mormon church was the only true church. Prayer was led by Mr. Torgerson before performances and several nonMormon students were asked to read from the Book of Mormon.

Well, March rolled around and it looked like a spring trip was being planned in spite of those "spoilsports from last year." Mr. Torgerson, in an attempt to take a school-independent trip, formed an Association, and asked students of the choir to hand out paperwork in class describing a trip being planned by the "Association." It indicated that choir members would be performing in churches, singing religious music and might voluntarily pray. Students were asked to join the Explorer Scouts, a coed branch of the Boy Scouts of America. I and two other nonMormon students (they were also Jewish) in the choir who were not given any information, inquired about the trip. We were told by the choir class president that we could not have applications as we were "not on the list." When I asked Mr. Torgerson personally about the trip he said he knew nothing about it. This of course was a deliberate lie as we later found out his home address was on the application form! The trip failed because the Explorer Scouts district office learned from scoutmasters in the West High community that the choir was joining simply to participate in a controversial trip to sing at Wards and co-sponsor services as in previous years. The Boy Scouts refused to sponsor it. Guess who was blamed for it?

The class held immediately after the cancellation was excruciating for me. Mr. Torgerson ranted and raved at me for almost the entire class period, in front of the entire class of 130 students, blaming me for the class being unable to take their spring trip, blaming me for almost everything under the sun. I was in tears and absolutely terrified. One of my friends came and sat beside me and tried to comfort me. I was grateful for the support but just wish she and others could have been more vocal about it. The students may not have agreed with my opinions, but I am after all a human being and common decency demanded that they do something! However, the school administration put Torgersons's actions all down to "artistic temperament." Evidently, this included his acts of tearing an intercom speaker off the wall, slamming down the lid of the grand piano several times, and hurling a music stand across the room in fits of rage, or should I say, "artistic temperament"?

Anyway, as I said, these tirades continued, varying sometimes more, sometime less in intensity but always with the same theme. Mr. Torgerson said that his religious rights were being violated and denied and that I was being intolerant of his beliefs! Then there was his pet theme that Jews and Mormons were so similar because we both had been persecuted for our beliefs! He also stated on more than one occasion that he disagrees with the Supreme Court's decisions on the separation of church and state as set forth in the Constitution and that he will continue doing whatever he wants.

In early May, Mr. Torgerson presented his selections for the graduation ceremony. Two songs, both undeniably religious, were chosen. Those songs were "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," and "Friends." The first song was undoubtedly chosen for my benefit as, after all, "the words come directly from the Old Testament." The song "Friends" is one that has been on rotation on Christian radio stations since it was written in 1987. Both songs are contemporary. There is no artistic merit to either one, as has been claimed. "Friends" was represented as a "traditional" song performed for years by the choir at graduation. In fact, that song only became a "tradition" since Torgerson started teaching at West some five or so years ago.

I felt that Mr. Torgerson chose those two songs to show me I had no rights at all which apparently, judging from events so far, I don't. I was also told that attendance at the graduation ceremony was mandatory and that I could not get out of it as I had during December. PEARL and our attorneys asked the school to discuss the matter prior to the graduation ceremony and was told that officials for the school would only be free to discuss the matter the day after graduation. Again, we had done something unheard of at this school or in Utah -- we attempted dialogue!

The harassment and intimidation escalated and became very intense at this point. I was elbowed in the hall, had obscenities yelled at me, and vicious rumors and lies were spread about me. Choir class became an absolute nightmare. The threatening phone calls started up again and again I was discussed in the media. I ran for Junior Class President and had swastikas and other filth scrawled on my posters. Again, no teacher or school administrator did anything to stop this hateful activity.

On May 31st, Andrew Hruska of Sullivan and Cromwell filed a temporary restraining order with the US District court to prevent those two religious songs from being sung at graduation, as part of a larger complaint alleging violations of the First Amendment and harassment and intimidation throughout the year.

A federal court judge refused to enjoin the singing of the songs, holding that the harm to the graduating seniors who would not hear the song outweighed the harm to my constitutional rights. Our attorneys proceeded with an emergency appeal before the 10th Circuit US Court of Appeals. On June 6th, one day before the graduation ceremony, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals enjoined the school from singing the two songs "Friends" and "May the Lord Bless You and Keep You" at the graduation ceremony.

In addition to the other reasons I spoke up against the graduation songs, my objection was that religion was being injected into a civil ceremony -- a graduation. Every one of the people graduating worked just as hard as everyone else to get to this point in their lives, whether they are a Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or atheist. To impose two Judeo-Christian songs, one of which says "Friends are friends forever when the Lord's the Lord of them," implies that those not of a similar mindset are less than equal in the eyes of their peers. The law has provisions for separate, religion-based baccalaureate ceremonies for graduates of that mindset. Just don't do a cram-down at the expense of minorities.

I was elated that the Court of Appeals had granted the injunction yet at the same time I really started to feel concern. The case was all over the media: radio, TV, the newspapers. Our phone was ringing off the hook from every conceivable sort of bigot.

I also began to receive many calls of support which really meant a lot to me. A number of the supporters have gotten together and formed a watchdog group called Utahns for Diversity and they are right now forming a Utah Chapter of PEARL.

Anyway, I did, unfortunately, have to go to school the next day, the day of graduation and I was really petrified. By 5:00 am the morning of graduation, radio shows had started in on the topic of "Rachel Bauchman: Hero or Bitch?" Many students at West were calling in with nasty comments. Word was beginning to be circulated that "Friends" would be sung anyway in defiance of the court's injunction! The TV picked that up and camera crews were out interviewing students all over about that possibility. In interviews, students said they'd sing the songs to demonstrate their belief that their rights were being violated. After all, they claimed, they were the majority here and I was just one little kid trampling all over them. Why couldn't I respect their rights and be tolerant of them? It didn't really matter that they weren't respectful and tolerant of my rights. Only their rights and beliefs mattered!

My father took me to school that morning and I steeled myself to go in. Actually, it wasn't that bad, as no one was even speaking to me except my friends, though it was hard to endure the dirty looks and whispering. School let out early for graduation rehearsal. My Mom picked me up and took me to the rehearsal at Abravanel Hall, which is Salt Lake's Symphony Hall, named, by the way, for Maurice Abravanel, a Jew who conducted the symphony for many years. My mother came with me for support. At rehearsal, I was pretty much ignored except for the few shouts of "troublemaker" directed at me. It was hard to have 500 pairs of eyes staring at me in such hatred, though. There were a few sympathetic friends at the rehearsal, but only a few.

At graduation, after we sang the two replacement songs, the rest of the choir remained standing and urged the audience members to sing the prohibited song, the lyrics of which were passed out to everyone entering Abravanel Hall that evening, myself included! Up until the very start of "Friends," I really didn't think that people could be so ignorant, hateful, malicious and spiteful! My mother and I were jeered at and spat at by the audience. We left in shock and disgust. Again, I was an object of ridicule and hate, this time in front of hundreds of people, mostly adults! Why? Because I objected to Christianity being imposed on me in a public school classroom which after all, is a place for teaching academic and secular subjects.

This experience has showed me the importance of keeping public schools religiously neutral and safe havens for all children. Public schools and teachers should not promote one religion over another, or religion over non-religion. Religious songs and objective studies about religion should be considered as objective lessons in music and culture. No single point of view should dominate any course of study in a public school. The key word here is public, not parochial. The aim is to make every child comfortable with the learning process and not stigmatized because of it. I, as a Jew, am not going to sit by and be trampled in a teacher's quest for religious salvation. Maybe the world would be a better place if certain people would refrain from insisting that their religion is the only viable one, that my religion has no value, or that I'm a tool of Satan and damned in the sight of God.

There was another time in history where the majority accused Jews and other minorities of the same bigotry and intolerance that they themselves were guilty of. There was another time in history where children of the minority, especially Jews, were denied equal access to education. And there was another time in history where student was set against student and child set against child by figures of authority. This was in the 1920s and '30s during the Nazi rise to power. My family is very conscious of this kind of thing and we've observed some very, very distasteful parallels, not only in Utah but all over the country. What happened to me could happen to anybody in this country. Mormons in other states are minorities, Baptists other places, Catholics other places; and for this very reason we cannot have state-sanctioned religion in public schools. Everyone is a minority one place or another. That's what I'm protesting about and that's why I'm upset. If the religious right's Religious Equality Amendment is passed, what happened to me will happen to others all over our country.

I came across a quote written by Martin Niemoller sometime ago which has shaped my life ever since. "In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up."

My parents have raised me and my brothers to think and to question those in authority with whom we disagree, and not to remain silent for fear of retribution. To stand up to wrongdoing, whether or not it directly affects one, is not only a right; it is a responsibility.

People have said that I am a mere puppet of my father. They just can't understand that a sixteen year old girl could possibly have a mind and will of her own. That she could make judgments and know right from wrong in a matter this complex. I am not a sheep. If that makes me a radical or an intellectual (and here in Utah I take it that these are major crimes), so be it. I have been raised to have the highest regard for intellectuals and believe that only through education and constant questioning can we truly learn and thereby grow as human beings.

When I first began to question, I was made to feel like an outcast. I was excluded, vilified and made to feel like a second class citizen in my own school. Now, as time has progressed my questions and objections have gained credence as others have stepped forward to support me.

I was told not to make waves. Basically, it was a feeble attempt to silence me -- a hope that I would go away. The problem is that I will not go away. I am in for the long haul. Whether I'm 45 or 105 I'll still be here. I feel that not only as a student but as a human being, I have a moral obligation to stand up for what I perceive to be an injustice. I think that the world would be a much better place if we all could truly respect and show a certain degree of tolerance when we interact with each other.

All I want out of this is for the diverse population of Utah to be truly acknowledged and appreciated. I would only hope that the people who are claiming that they want diversity and tolerance would understand that we don't live in a democracy where majority rules. We live in a republic where the rights of the minority are just as important as the rights of the majority.

One eight-year-old boy wrote to me saying, ". . . When I saw you on the news, it made me feel glad that I was a Jew. You are my hero." This made me realize all that I have accomplished and all that remains for me to do.

A very important point which I can't seem to stress enough is that your civil and human rights are not up for debate. They are yours. Keep them. Protect them. Never let anyone take them away. When all else fails and you feel that you don't have a say, remember that you do have a say -- always. And never be afraid to push back.

Rachel Bauchman's appeal of the dismissal of her lawsuit against religion at her public high school will be heard in federal appeals court in Denver on November 21.


Rachel, 17, is a senior in high school, taking music honors. She plays classical piano, enjoys playing the guitar and singing, and plans to attend a university in the East next year and go into civil liberties.

She has spoken before many groups on the issues of state/church separation and feminism.