The Rhode Island ACLU today applauded a decision issued by U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux in the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a prayer mural addressed to “Our Heavenly Father” that is displayed in the auditorium of a Cranston public high school. In a 40-page opinion, the court found the display to violate the First Amendment and ordered its immediate removal. The lawsuit, filed last April by RI ACLU volunteer attorneys Lynette Labinger and Thomas Bender, was on behalf of Jessica Ahlquist, now a junior at Cranston High School West, who in the past year has spoken out vigorously against her school’s prayer display.
In his decision, the judge stated: “No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer.” While acknowledging that “the Prayer espouses values of honesty, kindness, friendship and sportsmanship…. the reliance on God’s intervention as the way to achieve those goals is not consistent with a secular purpose.”
In July of 2010, after learning of the prayer display, the ACLU wrote to school officials asking that it be removed. In the hope of avoiding the need for litigation, the Affiliate waited eight months for the school committee to determine what to do. By a 4-3 vote last March, however, after a public hearing that the judge said “at times resembled a religious revival,” the school committee decided to keep the prayer. In fact, a day after the school committee vote, Jessica was allowed to leave class early in response to concerns for her safety arising out of her opposition to the prayer. Reviewing the hostility that Jessica has faced in the community for challenging the display, Judge Lagueux called her “a courageous young woman who took a brave stand.”
The prayer mural is approximately eight feet high and four feet wide and has been on display in the auditorium since 1963. Noting that Jessica is an atheist who indicated that the prayer mural made her feel “ostracized and out of place,” the court ruled that she had standing to challenge the display, despite attempts by the school district to argue she was not really harmed by it in any way.
Although some school officials sought to minimize the display’s clear religious message, instead calling it “historic” and “artistic,” the judge made clear that the school committee’s decision to maintain the prayer “endorsed the position of those who believe that it is acceptable to use Christian prayer to instill values in public schoolchildren.”
The U.S. Supreme Court first ruled government-sponsored prayer in the public schools unconstitutional in 1962. Thirty years later, in a case handled by the RI ACLU, the Supreme Court also ruled unconstitutional the recitation of prayers at public school graduation ceremonies.
Jessica Ahlquist said today: “When Steven Brown called me last night to give me the good news, I cried with happiness and relief. I’m so glad and proud that the right decision was made and the constitution was upheld. I am thankful for all that the ACLU and attorneys Lynette Labinger, Thomas Bender and my supportive friends and family have done to help with this case. I am hopeful that this case can be looked back on in the future and encourage others to stand up for their rights as well. It has been a very long and difficult year and a half for me, but it was absolutely worth it.”
ACLU volunteer attorney Lynette Labinger remarked: “Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island colony, opposed government-sanctioned or mandated expressions of religious piety as denigrating true religious beliefs. Ironically, in order to present their argument in favor of the continued display of the School Prayer, the City of Cranston argued to the Court that there was no religious significance to the School Prayer, attempting to reject and trivialize the religious message in order to preserve it. The district court carefully reviewed the record to conclude, as we had argued, that the School Prayer was installed to convey a religious message and the decision to maintain it in 2011 was infused with a religious purpose. The controversy which developed in this case demonstrated the rancor and divisiveness that often accompanies challenges to the majority view of religion. In the United States, because of our heritage, our core beliefs and the First Amendment, that argument is thankfully fought with words and lawsuits. There are many places throughout the world where that is not the case. The court's vindication of Jessica's rights is a vital reminder of the importance of this principle.”
RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “The ruling issued in this case is a victory for religious freedom. The First Amendment was designed not only to protect religious minorities and those of no religion from the heavy hand of government, but to protect the religious majority from it as well. When school officials publicly proclaim that a mural labeled ‘School Prayer’ has no religious significance, the value to all of keeping the government out of religion can be seen very clearly. We applaud the court’s decision and thank Jessica Ahlquist for her courage in pursuing this case in the face of nasty name-calling and hostility from some members of the community.”
When the lawsuit was first filed last year, the Rev. Don Anderson, a Baptist minister and alumnus of Cranston High School West, said at the time: “Any prayer adopted by a government agency crosses the line to state sponsored religion. Baptists, Quakers and other religious dissidents came to the colony of Rhode Island because here there was no state sponsored religion. This is not the time to be defending a prayer on the walls of the Cranston West auditorium. This is the time to work together to enhance Rhode Island’s rich tradition of religious diversity and a climate where all religious traditions are welcome.”
Read excerpts from the Court's ruling in Ahlquist v. City of Cranston.