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.

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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.


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