Cranston High School West Fights to Keep Prayer Banner Up

Cranston High School West has this banner hanging in its auditorium:

Our Heavenly Father.

Grant us each day the desire to do our best.
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically.
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers.
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others.
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win.
Teach us the value of true friendship.
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.

Amen.

Take away the beginning and the end and I think you have something pretty good there.

Some school officials are saying this shouldn’t be an issue. The banner’s been up there for over 50 years and no one has complained!

To that, the local American Civil Liberties Union branch wrote this (PDF) over the summer:

I understand that this prayer may have been posted in the auditorium for a long time. However, the crucial protections of the Bill of Rights have been around even longer. Even if there have been few, if any, formal complaints in the past from parents or students about this display, I can assure you –- based on our long experience dealing with these matters –- there are people, like our complainant, who have been offended by or concerned about it but who were fearful of coming forward.

On Monday night, a school committee tasked with figuring out how to handle all this came to their conclusion: They “voted to research the issue further.”

Part of what’s preventing them from fighting this battle — one they would and should lose — is money:

… The district owes the city more than $6 million.

“We are not in any position to take on more debt, no matter how righteous the cause is,” said School Committee member Stephanie A. Culhane, who described herself as a devout Catholic who teaches catechism.

Supt. Peter L. Nero, a practicing Catholic, recommended the School Committee rewrite the prayer. Legal expenses, he said, come at a cost: further cuts to education in a city that is already slashing its music and sports programs and this year eliminated its K-6 honor program.

“If people want to express themselves religiously, I would advise them to go to church,” said Nero. “I see a lot of empty pews next to me.”

It’s not a righteous cause. And you don’t need to research the issue any further.

Here’s what the school needs to do: Cut its losses, take down the current banner (or replace it), and focus on educating the students. They’re the ones who are suffering because selfish school officials want to waste taxpayer money circumventing the Constitution.

$6,000,000 could buy the district a number of Government teachers.

I’m sure those educators would be happy to teach the school officials about the law.

In the meantime, Jessica Ahlquist, an atheist student at Cranston West, has started a Facebook group: “Help us remove that prayer from Cranston West High School” — join it and help her fight what has to be a lonely battle.

(Thanks to Matt for the link)

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    “If people want to express themselves religiously, I would advise them to go to church,” said Nero. “I see a lot of empty pews next to me.”

    Nero is my Hero.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    They should make a new secularized banner. Keep the sentiment, ditch the heavenly father bit.

  • http://villageatheist.org Drew

    I got a roll of duct tape that cost $2.99 I’m willing to donate for free to cover the beginning and end of the banner to make it legal. Duct tape fixes everything!

  • http://www.eurovisionamerica.com Michael (SQFreak)

    I’m not convinced this prayer is constitutionally a problem. It seems a lot like the non-specific deity permitted in legislative prayer by Marsh v. Chambers. Second, because this takes place in a high school, students don’t blindly listen to their teachers and can tell the difference between the government endorsing a particular religion and ceremonial endorsement of the concept of religion, which they are constitutionally permitted to do, see Lemon v. Kurtzman.

    Also, Hemant, you may want to point out that this is Cranston, Rhode Island. (I get Cranston, RI and Cranford, NJ confused for some reason.)

  • Claudia

    It’s a very simple operation. A few cosmetic changes to make it constitutional would suffice:

    We pledge
    To do our best.
    To grow mentally and morally as well as physically.
    To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers.
    To be honest with ourselves as well as with others.
    To be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win.
    To value true friendship.
    To conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.

    Message essentially identical, with a nice bonus of personal responsibility which I think we can all get behind, and it’s constitutional to boot. Win-win-win.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000586562927 muggle

    I’ll second Hypatia’s Daughter. Well said, Mr. Nero. Very well said indeed. I like how he got the shot in there to the hypocrites about not being in church on Sunday.

    Seriously, this is such a simple fix and so easy to make the controversary go away.

    Er, Michael, Marsh vs. Chambers is about chaplains in state legislatures. The Supreme Court has repeatedly shot down prayer in public schools.

  • Claudia

    It seems a lot like the non-specific deity permitted in legislative prayer by Marsh v. Chambers.

    But in that case I think it counted that the whole habit of opening with a prayer from a chaplain was a custom that (barely) pre-dated the adoption of the 1st ammendment. This sign went up long after the 1st ammendment was law.

    Besides, there’s nothing “non-specific” about “our heavenly father”. Let’s be honest, it’s very obviously the Christian god. Even if you could argue it was some “other” father god, it’s still a god (discrimination against nontheists and theists without gods, like some Buddhists), pretty obviously a montheistic god (which excludes polytheists) and gives the god a gender (male) and establishes that there is a heaven (lots of religions lack this concept). Even if you could legally argue that it’s not “neccesarily” the Christian god, it’s impossible to argue that there isn’t a clear preference of one kind of god over others.

  • Grimalkin

    They had a choice – they could have made it fun. This could have been turned into a student competition to write a new banner, for example, or decorate that wall in some other way. That would have been productive.

    Instead, they hide behind “no one ever complained before, therefore we won’t take this complaint seriously.” Wuh?

    Fail.

  • http://everydayatheist.wordpress.com Everyday Atheist

    Does anyone doubt that if the district was running a $6 million surplus, this would be headed to litigation without “further research”? Amazing how school board devotion can track with the availability of resources.

    The superintendent’s comment is spot-on and utterly reasonable. Students, teachers and administrators are free to worship as they see fit, in their private lives and on non-school time. I struggle to understand how that simple point cannot penetrate so many believers’ minds. Instead of whining about how you’re not allowed to push your religion through public institutions, how about showing a little freaking gratitude for the fact that you live in a country where you can worship without interference in private institutions?

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Everyday Atheist

    how about showing a little freaking gratitude for the fact that you live in a country where you can worship without interference in private institutions?

    What a wonderful learning opportunity for the students. Present your vision of an America where the separation between church and state didn’t exist. The state could order prayer (as happened in England only a few centuries ago) and restrict the movements of those of non-state sanctioned religions or denominations. The state religion would be the only viable choice. What if it wasn’t Catholicism but Anglicanism, Baptist Protestantism or Mormonism? They may think that they are restricted in their religious freedoms now (which they aren’t) but imagine an America where religion was state controlled.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    “If people want to express themselves religiously, I would advise them to go to church,” said Nero.

    Exactly. Why is this such a difficult concept for so many people?

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    kudos to Jessica and the rest of the Cranston skeptics. way to be brave, kids! i don’t facebook so i have to laud you here.

    i am so very tired of whining xtian martyrs. good gravy, their “faith” is so weak. i’d be ashamed to be a Catholic right now because of all the pedophiles in that organization, but this certainly doesn’t make them look any better. get your asses in church, already and quit your bitching.

  • http://everydayatheist.wordpress.com Everyday Atheist

    @ hoverfrog

    Present your vision of an America where the separation between church and state didn’t exist.

    Now there’s a great movie idea! Hmmm…which religious group to make the “winners?” Can’t use Catholics – too much real anti-Catholic bigotry in our history. I’m thinking some form of evangelicals – maybe the Assembly of God? No dancing, no drinking, everyone speaking in tongues. Well, shit, now I’ve just made “Footloose.” Hmmm…

  • MV

    hoverfrog:

    A great idea. And the vision could even be historically accurate. Just present the history of state religion in the 13 colonies.

    Of course, I thought that this was already taught in US history…

  • Richard Wade

    The school officials should take the banner’s principles to heart. If they really followed the banner’s statement,

    “To grow mentally and morally as well as physically”

    …they would realize that the First Amendment protects their freedom only if it protects everyone’s freedom. They must protect the rights of others, not just their own.

    If they really followed the statement,

    “To be honest with ourselves as well as with others”

    …they would honestly admit that the banner is an inappropriate pandering to Christians in the community.

    If they really followed the statement,

    “Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win.”

    …they would not try to hide behind the “Argument from Tradition,” implying that the banner has been up for so long that even if it does violate the First Amendment, its age makes it somehow acceptable. The fact that it has been up for over 50 years is a shame, not an excuse. It is a wrong that has not been made right by a school that has failed to teach its students by example to follow the principle of equality and the law of the land.

    If they really followed the statement,

    “Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.”

    …they would stop dragging their feet with “further study” and immediately re-write the banner’s excellent sentiments into a pledge of personal responsibility that any person could follow, rather than a clearly Christian prayer.

  • Jack Bentley
  • Karl

    @Richard –

    “…they would realize that the First Amendment protects their freedom only if it protects everyone’s freedom. They must protect the rights of others, not just their own.”

    I like your thinking here.

  • Steve

    ^^
    If I recall correctly that wasn’t just about teaching, but also physical abuse. He claimed that the teacher burned a cross into his skin with some electrical device (albeit superficially, so it healed)

  • Tom

    My opinion is that this is having a bigger deal made out of it than needs be. Perhaps in America, because state and religion are very explicitly supposed to be separate, this is making some people a bit rilled. But I would certainly tolerate this sort of thing. What’s essentially being argued over are the words “Our Heavenly Father” at the beginning and a non-religious Hebrew word at the end. Not worth making news over. This sort of thing is certainly tolerated here in the UK due to the history of the Church of England. There’s a feeling among many secular Brits (at least ones I know) that christianity/religion is really just a cultural hangover from an era bygone, and that the words “Our Heavenly Father” are just as innocuous as “Long live the Queen”. The Queen has no real power anymore, and no one’s worried about children being brainwashed into accepting an autocracy. Again, it’s just a cultural hangover.

    Should Brits put up with nativity plays and prayers before school meals? For the sake of tolerance, I certainly would. I’m about as anti-religion as you can get (in the sense that I think religion has absolutely no place in modern society), but would rather not put up expensive billboards and kick up a fuss over minor annoyances. I agree, the prayer is irritating, but not offensive.

    But then again, perhaps I haven’t fully grasped the situation.

  • Heidi

    @Tom: You haven’t fully grasped the situation. Not your fault, really. You live in a civilized nation. It’s hard to comprehend how pernicious this stuff is here without experiencing it.

    Prayers on the wall, gods on the money, one nation “under god” and it all adds up. Evangelicals in particular use this stuff to promote the erroneous concept that this is a Christian nation by design, and that everyone else needs to shut up and let them have their theocracy.

  • Mark

    @Tom: No, you can’t give them an inch. In Texas they screwed up the textbooks. They never sleep. We need zero tolerance.

    And we don’t do kings/queens either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000586562927 muggle

    Tom, I have to concur. You just don’t have any idea of the uncivility that is American religiousity. England has us beat in class hands down.

    A ruling is pending on a lengthy administrative hearing to determine whether Freshwater will be able to keep his job in Mount Vernon schools.

    Am I in the Twilight Zone or something? This man should be facing a criminal trial for child abuse. Instead, they’re determining whether or not he can keep his job? WTF? This seems rather a no-brainer and I know were I a parent in this school, I wouldn’t allow my child to be taught by him. Plain and simple.

  • http://irrco.org Ian

    “If people want to express themselves religiously, I would advise them to go to church,” said Nero. “I see a lot of empty pews next to me.”

    As Hypatia’s Daughter said, this is the money quote. Their pain has nothing at all to do with being allowed to practice their faith. It is a purely political quest for religious people to have disproportionate influence in an increasingly secular society.

  • http://www.cautionchurchahead.com Steve Ahlquist

    Everyone here should know that the report in the Providence Journal did not fully explain just how bad things got during the meeting.

    Not reported in the article was how heated the meeting became. Jessica and the other students protesting the banner were grossly outnumbered by the crowd former Providence mayoral candidate Chris Young brought with him. The students found themselves in a corner, being bodily protected by three police officers from the crowd, one of whom insisted on handing her a note. The note directed them to a website called Silent Scream, for reasons no one could understand, because this issue has nothing to do with abortion, except perhaps in the mind of some hopelessly confused person.

    Jessica heard a woman hiss “witch” at her as she was attempting to speak, and other insults were hurled her way as well.

    The people speaking out in favor of the banner and against Jessica included the Rev Roman R. Manchester, a tea party activist and opponent of abortion and vaccines, Chris Young, who when he ran for mayor of providence was forcibly evicted from a debate because he insisted on carrying a large statue of the Virgin Mary on stage, and Kara Russo, who ran for Lt. Governor and several other positions in the past, who is most famous or being Chris Young’s girl friend. (Young proposed to her during the closing remarks of another mayoral debate.)

    The crowd that attended was organized, politicized, and intimidating. One person said that, “God’s mercy only lasts while you’re alive,” which is almost, but not quite, a real threat.

    Jessica Ahlquist is my niece, and her bravery in standing up and talking about her views and beliefs in the face of this crowd is nothing short of heroic. She’s defending your rights here, standing up to the lunatics, and more than deserves your support.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1806450664 Alijah Lettieri

      If this is true, I can’t believe it happened in 2012. Sounds like the Salem Witch Trials. This is why I’m an atheist. Christians don’t know how to play nice, and of course there’s the obvious logic explaining the nonexistence of god.

  • efrique

    If they remove the first line and last line and replace “Help us” and “Grant us” with “Let us strive”, the banner would be great – the nonreligious components are fine sentiments.

    Making a new, non-religious version of the banner would be more inclusive and a great deal cheaper than a legal battle.

    Being more inclusive, obeying the law and saving money – what could be better than win-win-win?

  • http://irrco.org Ian

    Steve, thanks for the extended info. I for one think she is a heroine. All props to her for her stand.

  • DaBone

    Hey guys! Look what this other guy wrote! I think it’s his first article or something: http://www.examiner.com/church-state-in-providence/a-possible-solution-for-the-controversial-cranston-prayer-mural …Is he serious?

  • Falcon

    D’awwhh, is the itty bitty wittle atheist gonna cryyy?

    “They’re “Christians”, so they weren’t supposed to react when I provoked them. Someone call the whaa-mbulance!”

    If you can’t take it, perhaps you should have waited a few years before joining the fight to dismantle Christianity through a false representation of the Bill of Rights, eh? But your age and gender are why you’re such a useful idiot.

    Using a little girl as an agent provocateur to attack faith is low, even for moral subjectivists.

    I’m guessing the name “Friendly Atheist” is supposed to be sarcastic?

  • Love God

    “If you deny God, He will deny you”

    -From God the creater of all.

  • Dan

    The banner looks more like something we used in the Military called “Core Values”.
    Honor, Courage, Commitment, Loyalty, Respect, Honor, Integrity, personal courage, and Excellence in all we do.  At one time Tradition rang across every services core values. However, by the 1990’s, this was stripped of every service, a sad time in my Navy days.
     
    Relating this banner to the schools core values, this looks pretty awesome for a seventh grader in 1963 to have wrote.   Of course in that time period, it’s not suppressing it was written as a prayer.
     
    I’m certain, both Atheist and Christians would rather see children graduate high school and move on to higher education and successful careers as ethical and morally citizens.
     
    REGARDLESS OF THE OUTCOME, I PRAY THIS SCHOOL DOESN’T CHANGE ANY OF THEIR SCHOOL CORE VALUES.  However, For forty-nine years this banner has stood in the school gym.  Could we view this as the entire school community, except for one, that is asking for the “Tradition” of allowing this version of school core values to remain?
     
    In my opinion, but it is only my opinion.  Most Atheist have no concern about after effects of stripping an institution of their time honored treasures.  Placing that institution on unfamiliar and unstable ground.  The Atheist banners and protesters are long gone when the undesired after effects are felt.   Why is it there are not great men or women such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, or Ronald Reagan who stood out in history who were Atheist?
     

  • Dan

    The banner looks more like something we used in the Military called “Core Values”.
    Honor, Courage, Commitment, Loyalty, Respect, Honor, Integrity, personal courage, and Excellence in all we do.  At one time Tradition rang across every services core values. However, by the 1990’s, this was stripped of every service, a sad time in my Navy days.
     
    Relating this banner to the schools core values, this looks pretty awesome for a seventh grader in 1963 to have wrote.   Of course in that time period, it’s not suppressing it was written as a prayer.
     
    I’m certain, both Atheist and Christians would rather see children graduate high school and move on to higher education and successful careers as ethical and morally citizens.
     
    REGARDLESS OF THE OUTCOME, I PRAY THIS SCHOOL DOESN’T CHANGE ANY OF THEIR SCHOOL CORE VALUES.  However, For forty-nine years this banner has stood in the school gym.  Could we view this as the entire school community, except for one, that is asking for the “Tradition” of allowing this version of school core values to remain?
     
    In my opinion, but it is only my opinion.  Most Atheist have no concern about after effects of stripping an institution of their time honored treasures.  Placing that institution on unfamiliar and unstable ground.  The Atheist banners and protesters are long gone when the undesired after effects are felt.   Why is it there are not great men or women such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, or Ronald Reagan who stood out in history who were Atheist?
     

  • Jseppi33

    I am a Christian and I wanted to share my thoughts. I hope this comes across right. I speak with respect to you, but I also want to speak honestly.

    Freedom of religion is a right and what makes this country great. That is until an atheist is bothered. But atheism is a FAITH too. You believe there is no God. Can you prove it? You say we cant prove there IS. So….its a religion for us to believe in something like God, and you to not.
    How come its ok for you to practice your religion of non belief, but not ok for us to?
    And seriously, all arguments aside, dont you believe in good old fashioned goodness? Positive values? If that banner encourages it, cant you just ignore it? Does it keep you up at night? When you pass by do you start to choke? If it was a banner condemning or calling names, I could understand, and as a Christian, Id help you take it down. But it doesnt. Anyhow, I respect your right to freedom to express your dislike, and so forth. But if its hung as a tradition for some time, without causing you harm in your belief, what does it really matter?
    Last but not least, the seperation of church and state originally was about no single denomination ruling, as it had in England. Our forefathers had Christian values all through government, including prayer, Bible reading, etc. They just didnt want government power to be in the hands of some religious leader, or sect. Something they fought to be free from and won. That’s the correct use of “seperation of church and state.”