Open letter to Cranston West banner committee

Tomorrow the banner committee will decide whether or not to appeal their loss in the case of the Cranston West prayer banner.  I have written them the following open letter.

To the banner committee at Cranston West,

I’m writing to you primarily in sympathy because I’m aware that you are in a difficult spot.  You were elected as stewards of these students’ future, expected to use your best judgment to manage the resources that will dictate the quality of their education.

I’m also aware that you are beset by a group of people who are not well-informed about legal issues but who do have control of the volume knob.  I appreciate the difficulty of being in this position.

I have seen the videos of those defending the banner, who are insisting you risk education dollars on behalf of their religion.  Please understand that it is not the job of these people to safeguard the education of Cranston students.  That is your responsibility.

I hope by this point, through reading Judge Lagueux’s decision or by consulting whatever legal counsel is at your disposal, you have come to realize that one thing is certain: the law on these matters is crystal clear, and an appeal of this case cannot be won.  I am tempted to write that you recently learned how costly a failed defense in court can be, but you didn’t.  The $173,000 price tag of the first defeat, the one that was called “egregious” by Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi, means you got off very, very light the first go-around (I suspect you became fully aware of this as you looked into it).  Lawsuits cost money, a lot of money.  If you thought that even with the RIACLU being charitable that the cost was egregious, you should consider the cost of an appeal destined to be lost knowing that the RIACLU’s generosity cannot last forever.  Recall your responsibility to these students’ educational future and keep your eye on the ball.

Some may say that defending the wholesome message of the banner is a charge thrust on you by your responsibility for the development of these students.  However, you were offered the chance to keep the wholesome message absent the parts that made the banner illegal.  You declined.  This tells onlookers like me that the portion you were defending was the religious parts, the ones that made the banner illegal to hang in a government building, not the moral message.

But even if that were not the case, the mob who seems to care about the message the most consistently ignores its appeal to lose with grace.  Look no further than the Cranston West students who have threatened Jessica Ahlqust on the internet.  The presence of that banner has not prevented such behavior.  Clearly, the wholesome message is less effective than many believe.

Others with a tremendous desire to keep religion in your school but with literally zero legal knowledge, the absence of which allows them to believe an appeal would not be doomed from the word go, will implore you to be heroes by fighting the supposed injustice of removing god from your school.  They will shout cliches about the separation of church and state, somehow imagining that they know more than decades of justices or that those justices have somehow never been presented with these cliches.

I must point out that you are not the ones keeping government and religion apart – it is a litany of court cases running back through America’s history.  There is no question that the overwhelming majority of church/state separation cases in what has undoubtedly and unarguably been a nation of Judeo-Christian background have nevertheless come down on the side of separation. Let’s face it: until recently the population has been around 90% Judeo-Christian.  That is the background of every single Supreme Court Justice ever, and clearly and consistently “separation” has been the winner. They haven’t done this because of their religious beliefs, but in spite of them.  Those demanding an appeal will believe they know more about applicable legal historical context than generations of Supreme Court justices, but no objective on-looker will buy that story.

You may point this out, but it will be insufficient to a mob who will not accept the law and will want a scapegoat of some sort.  They will blame you, and I’m sorry for that.  The way to avoid their ire is to vote to throw away a substantial piece of these students’ education.  Your job is to avoid doing that.  You were elected to use your judgment to best oversee the well-being of Cranston West, not to kowtow to the loudest and the most foolish who place a higher premium on having religious language on the walls than they do on the quality of education for the students in the seats.  Keep your eye on the ball.

During the committee meeting on Thursday you will be besieged with a host of predictable arguments, none of which will take your responsibility to these students and the school’s budget into account.

They will say that Jessica should just ignore the banner.  But as those responsible for constructing the best possible environment at Cranston West, your best effort cannot be a place where students are asked to turn their heads in the presence of things that are illegal.  The crowd may make such demands.  They may even work to make those who dare to point out illegalities fear reprisal.  But you must keep your eye on the ball.

The mob will scream that their freedom is being violated.  But freedom even in the United States has limits.  People are not free to hang “Whites only” signs above drinking fountains, for instance.  And our government is not allowed to treat one group of Americans as second-class citizens.  To quote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (in Lynch v. Donnelly, which took place in Rhode Island)…

Protecting religious freedoms may be more important in the late twentieth century than it was when the Bill of Rights was ratified. We live in a pluralistic society, with people of widely divergent religious backgrounds or with none at all. Government cannot endorse beliefs of one group without sending a clear message to non-adherents that they are outsiders. 

Or this from Justice Hugo Black…

When the power, prestige, and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.

That is precisely what the prayer banner did.  If you work for the government, such as in a public school, you cannot give sectarian religion precedence.  The “freedom” to marginalize others while serving in that capacity is afforded to nobody, and rightly so.

When that argument, or any of their others fails, they will say that the majority in Cranston wish for an appeal.  The proper use of majority opinion is to work through the system to orchestrate alterations to the Constitution or the present laws, not demanding that their local public high school breaks them.

They will continue by saying that removing a prayer from a government building means removing religion from public life.  I trust you can see the absurdity of this claim.  Wherever the banner goes, Jessica will not care.  She and the RIACLU only care that the government is not endorsing religion.

They will throw money at you (hang onto it, you’ll need every bit of it if you do decide to appeal this case) and beseech you to look at the phrase “In God We Trust”, insisting that you stop spending your money if you decide not to waste an appreciable hunk of the school’s on an appeal.  That phrase was added to paper currency in 1957.  Before that time Christians had no issue spending godless money, not because they endorsed atheism, but because paying rent and not starving made life more comfortable.  It is the same for the godless today.

Lastly, they will tell you that Jessica’s true motivation was somehow worthy of contempt.  They have no reason to believe this (aside from being put out), but even if it were true it wouldn’t matter.  Jessica could be the most wretched human being alive.  The legality of the banner is not dependent on her being an angel, it’s dependent on legal precedent which does not change with Jessica’s character.

Even if it did, Ms. Ahlquist is precisely what Judge Lagueux described her as: an articulate young woman who has succeeded and persevered through over a year and a half in a landscape of hostility and threats intended to get her to quit.  She has not quit.  Most adults in her situation would have, not because the cause was not just, but because most of us can only take so much.  Jessica has handled it with class, patience, and wit.  She is a hero across the world because she has survived being vilified locally.

In summation, you have a job to do.  It is not to rewrite America’s laws, it is not to pass judgment on Ms. Ahlquist, it is not even to listen to the mob on the basis of the volume of its uproar.  Your job is to maximize the quality of the education of students in Cranston.  If you are unconvinced that an appeal will end in victory, or that the presence of a prayer on the wall will somehow augment the quality of education, you need to end this affair now.

Keep your eye on the ball.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Bertram Cabot

    Are you a lawyer, JT?

    • Marshall

      Neat, the troll is back.

      You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that this case doesn’t have a chance on appeal.

      • Kevin

        Heck, you don’t even need to have graduated high school to know the banner is clearly unConstitutional.

        Jessica knew.

        • mnb0

          You don’t even have to be American to know that it’s against the Constitution. I know, but it took me five till ten minutes to figure out why.

    • John-Henry Beck

      Because citing decades of legal precedent and opinions of lawyers requires a law degree?

      Does he need to be a lawyer to claim that theft is illegal and thieves are prone to lose a court case claiming it’s okay to break in to a house and take what you want?

    • Zinc Avenger

      Are you a lawyer, Bertram Cabot?

      (Please note that your answer will be used by the Evil Atheist Conspiracy (Founding members: Trotsky and Mao) to identify you for the coming theist internment).

      You know, for someone so afraid of atheists, you sure do spend a lot of energy trolling them.

      • Marshall

        (Please note that your answer will be used by the Evil Atheist Conspiracy (Founding members: Trotsky and Mao) to identify you for the coming theist internment).

        Zinc! That was supposed to be a SECRET! Stop spilling the beans, or we’ll never be able to establish the atheocracy in our lifetimes!

        • Daniel Schealler

          All hail Athe!

          All hail Athe!

          All hail Athe!

          All hail…

          Ah. We’re not having that meeting now, then.

          Yes. Right. Tomorrow.



      • Zinc Avenger

        Oops! Good point, Marshall. Quick, turn up the fluoride levels for the outsiders who read that comment and turn the Orbital Mind Control Lasers up to 40% – they’ll soon forget all about it.

        *secret handshake*

        • Marshall

          Hahahaha, win.

        • Chrisj

          I thought we’d leased the OMCLs to the Bavarian Illuminati this week for some kind of combined op with their robot sea monsters?

          • Zinc Avenger

            Psst… No, that’s next week. We have their cloned doppelganger of Elvis this week (watch the news real carefully, folks!).

      • Marshall

        Great. Now ALL the cats are on the outside of the bags.

  • supermental

    Paragraph after paragraph, this keeps getting better. Excellent stuff JT. I’m only half way through and yet had to comment.

  • Turumbar

    All I can say is, “Wow!” Nice work, JT.

  • Marshall

    Oh yeah, this is awesome JT. I think you’ve done a great job explaining in a polite manner EXACTLY why an appeal would do far more harm than good. I really hope they consider what you’ve written here.

  • Pinky

    Good work J.T. You letter is succinct without being harsh. I hope at least one of the people voting on wasting even more of the school district’s money reads it.

  • Clyde

    Excellent letter, JT! All bases touched.
    But watch; rather than face the zeal, they will appeal.

  • Randomfactor

    Well said, JT.

  • Broginator

    Well done, good sir.

  • Siegfried Glaser

    Very well done indeed.

  • Grikmeer

    Hear, hear!

  • Greg du Pille

    Excellent. I imagine that the Committee will be in inundated with the kind of nonsense that JT has described (as variants of those non-arguments have appeared all over the place in comments on News articles over the past few weeks).

    I would be very surprised if a majority remains within the Committee to pursue this to a (very expensive) appeal.

  • hockeybob

    Great job on summarizing exactly what has happened, and what *will* happen, if they decide to appeal. Jessica has done as much, if not more, to defend the United States Constitution, as any service member, and I’m proud to support her 100%. She is a true American Patriot.

  • alisonmeyer

    That was excellent, JT. Are you sending it registered mail so they can’t pretend they didn’t get it?

  • Markita Lynda–Happy Darwin’s Birthday!

    If I were the city’s lawyers, I’d be writing the committee nice letters explaining that an appeal isn’t in the budget.

  • http://NA Todd Armstrong

    Not since the Federalist Papers (or Christopher Hitchens) have I read a more reasoned defense of the Bill of Rights.

  • MarkNS

    Better than I would have done…I don’t think I could craft a letter to these folks without using the term “asshat”.

  • robinlionheart


    Wow, someone there created a fake “John Eberhard” profile to put words in your mouth! Did they expect you to go away and not call them on that?

    I suggest you add a forum icon to your Cranston Patch profile, so that fake posts stand out visually from yours.

  • Leon

    Very well said, JT!

  • screechy monkey

    I wish the committee would see this as the opportunity it is. Instead of continuing to defend an indefensible banner that excludes some of the student body, why not work on a new one that proclaims the (secular) values for which the students will strive?

    Just as many organizations examine and revise their mission statements from time to time, it’s probably a good exercise for a school to have its students talk about what values the school and its athletes should represent.

  • scenario

    I live in RI and have been in the school many time and know people who work at CHSW and I’ve dealt with the administration. The administration in the school are the type of people who are intelligent but have little connection with reality. The local talk shows are screaming that it can’t be illegal, its been there a long time. Logic doesn’t enter into the decision process. It’s purely emotion.

  • Kat In AZ

    This letter to the Cranston school board was so well written, and yes, prophetic… But I thought Atheism was a Non-prophet organization… LOL!

    You totally rocked the Epic WIN with this letter.

    To the guys with the OMCL’s – Can I borrow that for the night of the GOP debates here in Mesa, AZ??? The crowd will be mostly religious conservatives who want their version of theocracy to be put in place with the christian versian of Sharia law… And all the cats that _were_ in the bag – was one of them Schroedinger’s? I think he might still be wondering if it was alive or dead. :-D

  • Joe

    OR, there is a good chance that the Supreme Court would find this is a historic gift from Students to Students…it’s 50/50 on the outcome and the side against the Banner does not want to take the chance….Here is where all you Geniuses tell me all about the Constitution. (“clearly this” & “Completely unwinable”, etc.) When you do, make sure you can quote specifics (one out of 13 of you will be able to). While you are quoting Justices….In 1962, Justice Potter Stewart complained that jurisprudence was not “aided by the uncritical invocation of metaphors like the ‘wall of separation,’ a phrase nowhere to be found in the Constitution.” and “Addressing the issue in 1985, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist lamented that “unfortunately the Establishment Clause has been expressly freighted with Jefferson’s misleading metaphor for nearly 40 years.”, “The Supreme Court ruled on June 27, 2005, in a 5-4 decision, that the display was unconstitutional. The same day, the Court handed down another 5-4 decision in Van Orden v. Perry with the opposite outcome.” I mentioned that one to show different courts and different Justices view things differently. Those who wish to argue with my belief it is a 50/50 chance of being overturned because “IT IS CLEARLY ILLEGAL”, should do some reading first, I suggest here: (you can’t even blame the website I’m quoting..It’s the Library Of Congress.) Nothing about this case is “CLEAR”.