CRANSTON – More than 200 people turned out Tuesday night during a meeting of the Cranston School Committee to show their displeasure with a federal judge’s ruling last week that called for the removal of a prayer banner from the wall of the auditorium at Cranston High School West, where it has hung since 1963.
But the group remained subdued when, after opening the meeting, the committee quickly voted to enter into what was anticipated to be a lengthy executive session to discuss collective bargaining agreements.
The banner became the subject of controversy last April 4 when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit contending that it was a religious symbol in a public school that violated the First Amendment rights of then Cranston West sophomore Jessica Ahlquist, an avowed atheist.
“I hope they decide to appeal the case,” said David Sears, 15, a Cranston West sophomore who also serves as a lector at St. Mary Church, Cranston. “It’s a piece of our school’s history.”
Christina Tarvis, a parishioner at St. Mary Parish, Cranston, said she believed the banner should be protected under the rights granted to Americans of free speech and freedom of religion.
“This is why everyone wants to come to America,” Tarvis said.
Christopher McCarthy, 9, held a sign that read: “I’m proud of what I believe in too! Amen,” as he stood with his father John outside the auditorium of Western Hills Middle School, where the meeting was held. The McCarthy family are parishioners of St. Matthew Parish, Cranston.
The parish’s assistant pastor, Father Victor T. Silva, also attended the meeting to show his support for keeping the prayer banner on the school wall.
“If we go down, we go down with a fight,” Father Silva said.
“It was pretty sad just to see the banner covered,” he said, noting how Cranston West placed a tarp over the banner to cover it following the judge’s decision.
As of press time, the School Committee had not yet decided on whether the city should appeal the ruling of U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux, who last Wednesday issued a 40-page opinion in which the court found that the banner violated the First Amendment and ordered its immediate removal.
Father Anthony W. Verdelotti, pastor of St. Mark Church, Cranston, was disappointed with the judge’s decision.
“I think it’s a complete disgrace that the banner that has been up for so long has to come down because of one person who doesn’t believe in God,” Father Verdelotti said.
The pastor discussed the decision to remove the prayer banner during his homilies at Masses this past weekend.
“It has to be mentioned,” Father Verdelotti emphasized. “People have to know that their rights are being violated as well.”
He added that there are more Christians and non-Christians who believe in God and who do not find the prayer banner offensive than there are people who called for its removal.
Providence attorney Joseph V. Cavanagh, a member of the legal team defending the City of Cranston in the ACLU suit, said in an e-mail to Rhode Island Catholic that attorneys for the school district are reviewing the decision with their client.
Lori Windham, an attorney with the Washington, D.C. based Becket Foundation for Religious Liberty – a non-profit, public interest legal and educational institute that works to protect the free expression of all faiths – also served on the defense team.
She said she was “very disappointed” with Judge Lagueux’s decision.
The defense contends that the prayer banner should remain on the wall at Cranston High School West, as it is an historical artifact rather than a religious symbol.
“We don’t believe the Constitution requires you to go around editing historical displays,” Windham said.
“Any religious message has been eclipsed by the historical and community aspects of the banner’s message.”
Msgr. Richard Sheahan, pastor of Holy Apostles Church, Cranston, noted that the ruling appears to be one more example of the justice system furthering the secularization of our society by attempting to remove God from public view.
“It seems to me contradictory to what, since 1954, we have said in the Pledge of Allegiance that is we are “one nation under God,” Msgr. Sheahan observed. “At the same time it saddens me to hear reports of possible cyber bullying of this young person by those who disagree with her position and the court’s ruling.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin said then it is understandable that people respond “in a very intense and emotional way” when cultural icons, religious symbols or traditional moral values are challenged.
“Nonetheless, resorting to personally insulting and even threatening language in such public controversies is totally unacceptable, especially when directed at a young person such as Jessica Ahlquist who has every right to promote her beliefs and express her opinion,” Bishop Tobin said in a statement.
David Bradley, who wrote the prayer as a seventh grader at Cranston West Junior High School more than 40 years ago, in response to an assignment from the student council, said the words were written to be meaningful to students of all faiths.
“All of a sudden, this is an issue to those of no faith,” Bradley, a 1965 Cranston West graduate, emphasized. “It’s a travesty.”
The prayer invokes “Our heavenly Father” to help students to do their best, grow intellectually and morally, to be honest and good sports, and to know the value of true friendship.
“I feel disappointed, angry and outraged,” said Bradley, who now lives in Connecticut, of the court’s decision. He added that he wrote the prayer “with dedication to his school and community.”
At a press conference last Thursday at the Providence office of the ACLU, Ahlquist said the “nasty” comments she’s received from classmates and her feeling of being ostracized by some peers has “been all worth it.”
In response to a question from Rhode Island Catholic, Ahlquist said she has both gained and lost friends during the controversy.
Ahlquist, who was baptized a Catholic – according to her father, Mark – emphasized that she was “thrilled and relieved” when she heard the judge’s ruling.
She added that while her immediate plans are to return to Cranston West, she hasn’t made a decision whether to attend classes there next fall and graduate with the Class of 2013.
According to Annie Laurie Gaylor, a spokesperson for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisc., Ahlquist received the Thomas Jefferson Student Activist award last October during the organization’s annual convention held in Hartford, Conn.
The FFRF is responsible for recently posting a billboard with the words “Keep Religion Out of Politics” along Interstate 295 in Warwick.
Gaylor said that in attendance at the ceremony were several of Ahlquist’s relatives, including her uncle Steven – a member of the FFRF.
While the experience hasn’t led Ahlquist to decide whether to pursue a law career, she said it has taught her to stand up for her beliefs – no matter the cost.
Father Michael Najim, chaplain at La Salle Academy, Providence, described the court’s decision as “unfortunate.”
“Students need God now more than ever,” Father Najim said. “To take God out of the public square will in the long term do more harm than good.”
Father Najim said that while it’s natural for young people to question their faith and God, “it’s unfortunate that one person’s struggles have an impact that changes a longstanding tradition in the community.”
He added that the banner was created to inspire, not to promote any one religion.
Bishop Hendricken High School senior Christopher Davey of Cranston believes that the banner should not be removed.
“I think that legally they do have a point, but I also think that the banner should stay up because it is part of the school’s tradition and it doesn’t specify any religion,” Davey said.
He added, “I’m sure that other atheists have gone to that school haven’t had a problem with the banner.”
Thomas Gambardella, director of campus ministry at Hendricken, said that many students have expressed sorrow that “some people are ripping God out of all facets of life.”