Banner Banished: Court Strikes Down R.I. School Prayer Display

A brave 16-year-old girl faced a howling mob over school prayer -- and prevailed.

In October, I wrote about a young high school student named Jessica Ahlquist who filed suit to have a school prayer banner removed from Cranston High School West in Cranston, R.I.

At the time, the federal judge hearing the case, Ronald R. Lagueux, visited the school to examine the banner. Some observers believed he would rule within a few days.

But Lagueux didn’t do that. He took some time to thoroughly examine the issue and ruled yesterday – and it’s an opinion worth waiting for.

In a 40-page slam dunk, Lagueux first dismissed school officials’ claims that Ahlquist had no right to challenge the banner. He then went on to explain why this official school prayer, which has been hanging in the gym since 1963, is patently unconstitutional.

The 8-foot-long banner opens with “Our Heavenly Father” and concludes with the word, “Amen.” It is even headlined “School Prayer.”

“No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that,” Lagueux observed.

It’s worth spending some time reading Lagueux’s opinion. He traces the history of the case, and it’s quite remarkable. When Ahlquist raised the issue, she immediately came under attack. Residents packed school board meetings to denounce her. Several members of the seven-person school board went out of their way to discuss their personal religious views as they explained why they were voting to retain the banner. Things got so bad at one meeting that police officers had to escort Ahlquist out of the room.

But in the end, all of this sermonizing at public meetings helped do in the school board. Lagueux cited it all as evidence that the board had clearly embarked on a religious crusade. He noted that “the tenor of the School Committee’s open meeting at times resembled a religious revival.”

Added Lagueux, “The Cranston School Committee and its subcommittee held four open meetings to consider the fate of the Mural. At those meetings a significantly lopsided majority of the speakers spoke passionately, and in religious terms, in favor of retaining the Prayer Mural. Various speakers read from the bible, spoke about their personal religious convictions, threatened Plaintiff with damnation on Judgment Day and suggested that she will go to hell. The atmosphere was such that the Superintendent of Schools felt compelled to discuss his own religious beliefs at length when he made his recommendation to the Committee that they vote to retain the Prayer Mural.

“Similarly, five of the seven School Committee members expressed avowals of their own religious beliefs at the meeting, including two of those who voted against retaining the Mural,” Lagueux continued. “This is precisely the sort of ‘civic divisiveness’ that the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause cases repeatedly warn against. When focused on the Prayer Mural, the activities and agenda of the Cranston School Committee became excessively entangled with religion, exposing the Committee to a situation where a loud and passionate majority encouraged it to vote to override the constitutional rights of a minority.”

(It really is a fine opinion. At its conclusion, Lagueux quotes a stirring passage from Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and early religious liberty pioneer.)

When I heard about this decision last night, I logged on to the website of the Providence Journal to read more about it. I was dismayed to see the Journal’s comment section full of ignorant and crude attacks on Ahlquist and the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the case on her behalf. As I read some of the especially vicious comments, I could only hope that Ahlquist and her family have made some arrangements for their personal safety.

Near the end of his opinion, Lagueux called Ahlquist “clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community.”

He’s right about that. At 16, Ahlquist had the guts to stand up to a howling mob and prevail. She deserves our support. You can learn more about her case here.