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.
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.
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[.]”
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.