Federal judge orders removal of prayer banner in Rhode Island high school

January 12, 2012

A federal judge has ordered Cranston High School West in Rhode Island to immediately remove a Christian prayer banner (right) hanging on the school's auditorium wall, according to the Providence Journal.

The case, argued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was especially notable for the Center for Inquiry because it was brought on behalf of CFI-On Campus volunteer high school coordinator, 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist, and her father, Mark.

In his 40-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux rejected Cranston's argument that the banner, which had been in place since 1963, should remaing hanging as a matter of "tradition."

No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that. ... The Prayer concludes with the indisputably religious closing: 'Amen;' a Hebrew word used by Jews, Christians and Muslims to conclude prayers. In between, the Prayer espouses values of honesty, kindness, friendship and sportsmanship. While these goals are commendable, the reliance on God’s intervention as the way to achieve those goals is not consistent with a secular purpose.

The Court refrains from second-guessing the expressed motives of the Committee members, but nonetheless must point out that tradition is a murky and dangerous bog. While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction. The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular

Ahlquist first raised concerns about the banner in August 2010, when she tried to reason with the administration on the inappropriate nature of the sectarian banner. The school refused to consider her concerns, forcing Ahlquist to pursue legal action. Lagueux released his ruling yesterday. The school now has ten days to comply. 

Lagueux's decision marks an important win for advocates of church and state seperation. To be absolutely clear: this case is not another example of angry atheists attacking religion, or a high school student seeking attention. In fact, Jessica has faced so many insults and threats that she might not return to Cranston for her senior year, prompting Lagueux to praise Ahlquist as "clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in the light of the hostile response she has received from the community."

Rather, this case was about a public high school endorsing a specific religious view. In line with the Establishment Clause and ensuing Supreme Court decisions, the United States government should remain strictly neutral on matters of religious belief. It should not favor one religion over another religion, or religion over non-religion. Clearly Judge Laguex understands this. Hopefully administrators at Cranston get the message.

You can show support for Jessica's bravery on this Facebook group supporting the banner’s removal.

UPDATE: you can watch video of today's press conference here