RI School Won't Fight Prayer Banner's Removal

Atheist Student Jessica Ahlquist, ACLU Applaud Committee's Fiscal Decision

A Rhode Island public school board voted on Thursday not to appeal a federal court ruling that required the school to remove a 40-year-old prayer banner from its walls after an atheist student said it conflicted with her beliefs.

The Cranston School Committee voted 5-2 against an appeal, saying it did not want to meet the rising legal costs needed to defend the banner. The city of Cranston is already responsible for almost $200,000 from the original court case and legal experts say an appeal would cost more than half a million dollars.

A federal judge ruled last month in favor of 16-year-old junior Jessica Ahlquist and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), saying the banner – which begins "Our Heavenly Father" and ends in "Amen" – was unconstitutional. The banner was a gift from the school's inaugural graduating class in 1963, and features a moral credo written by a student.

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Witnesses say the meeting on Thursday night was contentious and that Ahlquist was shadowed by a police officer throughout the meeting. More than 500 parents and other town members spoke passionately on both sides of the issue, but ultimately the cost of an appeal effort was the deciding factor.

"The ACLU is going to win solely because of the fiscal condition of Cranston," school board chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi said at the meeting, referencing the economic decline of the Rhode Island town. Iannazzi added that the money would be better served elsewhere.

Dainel McCarthy, a Cranston resident and Irish Catholic, supported the removal of the banner and told the crowd it signified religious favoritism.

"I don't want my tax dollars spent in any school district that promotes one religion over another," McCarthy said.

Board members have been flooded with letters and emails from people across the country who stand on either side of the issue. Indeed, the issue reached the national stage following the court's ruling last month with many media outlets reporting on the ruling's implications regarding religious expression in school.

Ron Valiquette, a townsperson who attended the meeting, told the crowd that though the Cranston banner may seem like a hyper-localized, isolated issue, the debate has far-reaching effects on religious expression in contemporary America.

"What's happening now is an attack on any type of religion," Valiquette said. "This is about more to us than one atheist objecting when there is something on the wall that doesn't pertain to her."

The Rhode Island ACLU, which orchestrated Ahlquist's case against the school, issued a statement hailing the school board's decision.

"We commend the Cranston School Committee for voting to abide by the federal court's ruling and to remove the prayer banner at Cranston West," said Steven Brown, R.I. ACLU's executive director. "This decision protects the rights of all students and will allow the school district to get back to the business of education."

The school did not immediately release a statement regarding the ruling and did not speculate when it would remove the banner. Currently, the banner is covered by a wooden board.

Following the school board's decision not to appeal, Ahlquist wrote on her Twitter and Facebook pages, "Congratulations, to all of us."

Ahlquist has said she is planning to transfer schools at the end of the year.

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