Update on the Cranston West High School God Banner Lawsuit

This is the religious banner currently hanging in the auditorium of Rhode Island’s Cranston High School West:

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.

Junior Jessica Ahlquist has been in a courageous (and often times lonely) fight trying to get it removed, but she has the ACLU and her father on her side — as well as the support of a lot of atheists and allies of church/state separation.

Back in April the Rhode Island ACLU filed a complaint (PDF) against the city of Cranston.

Now, a court hearing is set for October 13th, and a few days ago, the ACLU filed a trial brief requesting a preliminary injunction (PDF).

In it, we read Jessica’s initial reaction to learning about the prayer:

Plaintiff [Jessica] objects to the school sanctioned display of the “School Prayer” in her high school auditorium. From the first time Plaintiff read and comprehended the School Prayer display, it upset her… “When I saw the prayer in the school for the first time, it made me feel excluded, ostracized and devalued. I belong to that school as an equal student, except it was excluding me from its request from God. It says Our Heavenly Father. And I wasn’t included in that Our ’cause I don’t believe in a Heavenly Father.”… “The first time I saw the prayer, I felt excluded ’cause my … school didn’t include me. I felt left out.”

We also learn that before the School Committee members voted to keep the display in place, one of them showed off his complete religious bias:

Committee member Traficante prefaced his vote by explaining that he was “a person of faith”; that as an athletic coach in the school system for 25 years he led students in a prayer “before every single wrestling match or football game”; and as the Cranston Mayor he had invited clergy to all his mayoral events. He explained his belief that the United States was built on the “moral and religious” principles “emulated” in the display, and that it was their “obligation as School Committee members to protect and defend the moral values of our students and that banner helps us to express that[.]”

He’s admitting to doing something illegal and acts proud of it…

Meanwhile, the other Committee members said the banner wasn’t “religious.” It was simply “tradition,” as if that’s a good enough reason to keep the banner up in the auditorium.

Jessica’s side essentially wants a few things. They want the court to say the banner is unconstitutional. They want the banner removed from the school. If Jessica wins, they want the city to pay her compensatory damages of $25.00. (Not a typo. For the sake of legal standing in case Jessica graduates before this lawsuit ends, there has to be some money — or “damages” — involved. But this isn’t really about the money; it’s about righting a wrong. So Jessica’s side just asked for something small.)

The ACLU is doing the right thing here and I hope the judge feels that way, too.

It’s amazing how many people don’t understand why she’s pursuing this case or what’s involved. This is a portion of a recent message sent to Jessica:

It’s disgraceful too have to read in the newspaper that a student could be so ignorant as to take whatever your problem is with a piece of school history & try & for ce the school to take it down. And when they don’t agree with you, you take it to court! Wasting more of our tax $ when we are so in debt and offending so many people along the way. If you don’t like it then please just walk past it. No one ever asked you or told you that you had to stop & read it. Don’t ruin it for the people who put it up, the past students who cherish it, & the current students who enjoy it. And please stop wasting our tax $ on something so foolish & ignorant. I do not know if you are old enough & pay taxes to realize how much this is hurting our city financially and hurting our already greatly deprived schools of $ they do not even have. I don’t know what your real reason & motivation for this is, hopefully not just to make friends or to get your name in the paper. So I sm asking you to please stop & think for a second what you have done & are doing & to please just let it be. Thank you.

Christians can barely walk past a (legal) billboard that says “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone” without complaining about it. But they want Jessica to ignore a(n illegal) banner that has a pro-religion message all over it? Please. If the School Committee did the right thing, this wouldn’t have been an issue to begin with. But, as it stands, their stubbornness and insistence to push God into the high school is wasting everybody’s time. (They’re being represented for free, anyway.)

If the court finds the city guilty, the school stands to lose the cost of about half a textbook.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Trina

    It’s too bad that whoever put up the banner in the first place couldn’t see that all of those ethical aspirations could, and should, have been made without putting it in the context of mythology.  Or, worse, that if they did realize that, they inserted their god into the discussion anyway.  I hope Jessica wins!

    • Rob

      I take issue with the contents of the text itself and the BELIEF that God gives Christians hearts and minds so much better than everyone else’s. The things in this text don’t even take root in the older Christian generations. The point being that youngsters are going to follow the examples set by their elders, not the ideals written on some huge sheet of paper in a public school. Based on personal experiences over 20 years in a number of Christian churches (from which I’ve been free for 12 years now), there are PLENTY of people who have failed to meet each and every single one of those standards, all the while professing their dedication to God. The last shining example in my life was a full 10 years ago in college (at a major Baptist U): I knew a girl (a staunch Catholic) for 5 years; she went to church regularly and talked about God often and yet showed very little “mental or moral growth” – for example, she would use curse words whenever she wanted, but got nervous and upset whenever she heard other people using those same four-letter words. Ridiculous! She wasn’t exactly “kind and helpful” to me or to others, was anything but honest with me and with others, actually had a reputation among her own immediate family members for not lifting a finger to maintain relationships with people who cared about her, and consequently obviously didn’t get any lessons from her Great Sky Fairy about “true friendship.” I emphasize that last part because she told me on several occasions over the years that our friendship was secure (even when I told her I’d lost my faith), that I could confide in her, etc., etc. Only to find out one day, through her parents, that she’s getting married to someone I’d never known about in the year and a half she’d dated him, and suddenly I was no longer worth a single word. After I took her to lunch (her suggestion) on her birthday (my suggestion, and a mere two months before she became engaged), she never spoke to me again, and when I called her out on her behavior, she had daddy call me up and tell me I was the bad guy and to get lost. Really, why are Christians such impossible, raging a–holes?

      • lleblanc

        why are Christians such impossible raging a—holes ???
         
        WHY ARE ATHIESTS SUCH IMPOSSIBLE RAGING A__HOLES !!!!

  • Parse

    Half a textbook, and legal fees, unless there’s some shenanigans going on with those.  
    Remember, that half-million that Dover paid was for the plaintiff’s (reduced) legal fees; the plaintiffs themselves only got $1 each in nominal damages.

  • Anonymous

    It’s sad that you can’t trust people to respect the 1st ammendment without threat of legal action. While government officials think they can trample over the rights of a minority because an ignorant and often bigoted majority backs them up it will sadly be neccesary to appeal to their pocketbooks for them to follow the law, since their decency can’t be trusted.

  • Cutencrunchy

    ”If you don’t like it then please just walk past it. No one ever
    asked you or told you that you had to stop & read it. Don’t ruin it
    for the people who put it up…. ” I’m sure this is a very solid argument and the one the Klan would love to use for the crosses they burn in front of your house.. or the graffiti ‘artist’s put on the walls about you being overweight – tomorrows sign ”Bless us Satin for we are all your unworthy followers”… hey if you don’t like it just walk past it.. maybe a few different ideologies get posted and you’d start to realize it’s oppressive to those who want the freedom to define their own beliefs without your tradition of punishing anyone who isn’t exactly like you

    • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

      If you don’t like it then please just walk past it.

      Two can play that game. If you don’t like the empty spot where the banner used to be, just walk past it.

      • SC

        horrendous retort. 
        learn to argue like an adult

    • SC

      It’s Satan….maybe you should be more worried about spelling instead of pointless arguments

  • Nazani14

    Perhaps the atheist students could put up a “good without god” banner next to it, and students of other faiths could also display their creeds.

    • Anonymous

      No way. That would be offensive to Christians

      • Scittarellir

         and “Amen” being a Christian thing and “God we trust” and that other BS is also offensive but not to Christians but to us Atheist
        I go to CHSE (Cranston East) Now i wish I went to west Id love to meet this girl

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

      That doesn’t solve the problem, it only creates more problems. They are all illegal (an argument could even be made for the atheist one) and have no place on the wall of a publicly funded, government-run facility.

      • Pherd

        It’s illegal for the school to integrate religion into the school participation, but when you say that they all have no place “on the wall…” then you’re ruling out art too, which is a dangerous infringment of 1st amendment rights.

        So while the banner by itself is the issue, going the other way, and making it just part of a web of inspirational sayings of all cultures would a) diminish it’s presence to just part of a tapestry, b) prevent a backlash that causes a zero-tolerance for any Point of View and c) encourages discourse and sharing, not sterile empty walls.

        Of course – that would have been an appropriate response before the law suit. When no one is permitted to be offended, then truly we have made the greatest offense to human creativity and civilization. I just think everyone should be equally offended. :)

  • River Lizard

    Take the following words out of it: Prayer, Our Heavenly Father and Amen……and I would be ok with the banner staying up.  It’s that simple!! Remove 5 words and this whole thing is over.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    I hate the “wasting taxpayer dollars” argument against Jessica Ahlquist. If anybody is wasting taxpayer dollars, it’s the school for doing something illegal and bringing the lawsuit upon themselves. Since when are we supposed to allow people to break the law, then blame the plaintiff who sues them for doing so for wasting taxpayer dollars? Absurd.

    • Anonymous

      It’s a very clever way to blame the victim.  Petend you’re not doing anything illegal and blame the person that’s fighting to correct the illegal action of any expenses made trying to perpetuate the illegal act.

  • Guest

    I feel like that last part is one of the major obstacles for atheists – the “If you don’t like it, why can’t you just ignore it?” Is it really so hard to understand why people want to stand up for their principles? Or why they might get irritated when Christianity is shoved into their face at every opportunity? And of course, these are always the same people who would throw a *fit* if it was a non-Christian message.

  • Karen

    I’m freaking PROUD of Jessica for standing up and fighting this fight!
    I am sure she is faced with negativity, anger, and downright abuse from the Christians around her.
    Jessica, you are awesome!

  • Guest

    Imagine if this banner were praying to the Muslim god instead, how many of these people would still be saying “just walk past it and ignore it”?
    The “just ignore it” routine seems to only be brought up when the case fits your own personal beliefs.

    Jessica Ahlquist is an amazing young woman and she has my utmost respect for standing up for what she believes in. Cheers to you, Jessica.

    • Anonymous

      If anyone were to suggest hanging any sort of muslim credo or symbolism there would be highly forceful outcries that the terrorists are introducing sharia law into the schools.  * Gasp* woa is me! ;0)
       As much as it really doesn’t belong in the schools I do kind of like the idea of suggesting they hang representations of all recognized positions of faith and/ or lack there of.  1)  You most certainly would see a revolt happen and 2) when said revolt happens you have that much more “material” in pursuing removal of the original banner.  If no revolt were to ensue from doing so then imagine the variety of conflicting messages all in one place that children would see, side by side…a visual comparative religion message.  Something sure to arouse a lot of inquiry in young minds.

  • Anonymous

    This would be so easy for the school to correct.  Change the banner from school prayer to school motto or principles and remove the heavenly father and the amen.  Jessica Ahlquist deserves nothing but praise for her stance.

    Also next time coach Traficante leads a prayer for a school team, in school time should be his last.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JQUGLZDT5Q3XGRBUUHSWI4EM2I Bernie

    Parse is right.

    Hemant, the school district stands to lose a lot more than the nominal $25 compensatory damages Ahlquist is asking for. Under the relevant federal statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), if the district loses it will almost certainly be forced to pay all of Ahlquist’s legal fees; even if (as I presume is the case) the ACLU attorneys are representing Ahlquist pro bono, once she wins the district will have to pay those attorneys their normal billing rate (probably above $400/hour) multiplied by the amount of time they spent working on the case. That’ll be a five-figure amount, if not six.

    As Parse points out, you shouldn’t forget Kitzmiller, the Pennsylvania federal case over a anti-evolutionary disclaimer that a creationist-run school board forced to be read off in biology classes. In that case, the victorious plaintiffs, citing that same federal statute, would have won more than two million dollars in legal fees from the school district, though they ended up settling with the district (after a new slate of sane members were elected) for a smidge over $1 million. In precise terms, they settled for $1 million in legal fees plus $1 compensatory damages for each of the eleven plaintiffs = $1,000,011.

    Ahlquist’s case looks quite a bit simpler than the crazy zoo of Kitzmiller, and as a result the legal fees will be considerably smaller than $2 million. But, say, $200,000 is not at all out of the question.

    • tennismom

      I agree with what Bernie is saying and to be honest that is the whole problem with the school systems that take a stance to stand their ground based on their beliefs rather than the laws of our country!  If they had taken the banner down and followed the law to begin with they wouldn’t be looking at what could turn out to be a 5, 6, or even 7 figure payout…which in the end does nothing but hurts their ability to teach and carry on day to day business as needed, especially when there is already a budget crisis affecting the whole country, not just school systems of course.

      I’m glad we have students that are willing to stand their ground for what is right all over this country. I personally am very proud of Jessica for doing this! She is a very brave and puts up with a lot from students and adults alike everyday!!!

      It takes a lot for kids like Jessica, Duncan Henderson, Harrison Hopkins, Zack Koplin, and Damon Fowler to stand up and go against the norm (so to speak) knowing the abuse they will face day in and day out just to preserve our constitutional rights. But they are willing to move forward day in and day out, as they try to preserve rights and disprove religious stereotypes about the non-religious as they go. All five of these kids ROCK!

      To Jess and the others…Stay the course, be true to yourself, and know that you have tons of supporters behind each and every one of you!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    $25? THAT GOLD DIGGER! Clearly just out for the money.

  • Barrettleslie

    Thanks for posting and supporting.
    Brave girl.

  • Scittarellir

    She’s  right, isn’t illegal for public schools to force religion in,  so I’m on her side all the way  she’s standing up for Atheist and basically doing the right thing.

  • Larry Leblanc

    A CONSTITUTIONAL PROPOSAL:  The ACLU has stated in many of their cases involving students rights in public schools that students rights do not end at the school house door. TAKE THE BANNER DOWN. Wear shirts to school that have
    the exact same  prayer printed on them . It is CONSTITUTIONAL. It is STUDENT LED and INITIATED  activity and has nothing to do with the school nor the government endorsing it. It is private citizens exercising their amendment rights in
    complete conformity with the constitution. There is NO CHURCH STATE ISSUE HERE .

    Take down the banner and put on your prayer shirts. 

  • lleblanc

    Reading all the comments. You people want it all y0ur way. The school has a right
    ..a constitutional right … just  as Jessica has a right .. to defend itself. Jessica has the ACLU and all of its might pinned against the school. I do not see fair play being encouraged. It is Jessica’s wants being satisfied and her wants ….as athiests are fond of saying very often…JAMED DOWN THE THROATS of others.


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