After months of debate, international news coverage, and litigation that cost this Rhode Island school district six figures, a controversial prayer banner was removed from the wall of Cranston High School West this week.
The enormous banner has hung in this Rhode Island high school since 1963. It begins with the phrase "Our Heavenly Father" and ends with "Amen," and hung in place for decades before it became the center of controversy. A Cranston student who objected to the banner's presence sued the district with the help of the ACLU, and in January a judge ordered that the banner be removed.
Two events this week seemed to close the book on the banner's five decade history in the high school: The banner's removal, and the announcement of an agreement by the school district to pay the ACLU's legal fees.
The ACLU raised the issue in July of 2010 after a complaint from a parent. In a letter to the district at the time, Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU, wrote "there can be no question that the school auditorium’s prayer display violates a core principle of the First Amendment."
In April of 2011, Jessica Ahlquist, a 16 year old Cranston West student and self-described atheist, filed suit to have the banner removed. She was called "an evil little thing," a "clapping seal" and a "pawn star" by a state representative on a local radio station.
David Bradley, the author of the prayer and a graduate of the class of 1963, said he was tasked to write the prayer and the creed as a student council member in 1960 at the request of his adviser and the school administration.
The 21st century church and state debate brought media from around the country and the world to Cranston.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Cranston Public Schools and the state chapter of the ACLU announced that they had tentatively agreed that the district would pay $150,000 to the ACLU to cover the organization's legal fees.
This was less than the $173,000 the ACLU originally requested in January after winning the case.
No Home for the Banner Yet
Tuesday's announcement came with the backdrop of a blank, white wall in the auditorium at Cranston High School West, where the banner once hung, and where Cranston Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Raymond Votto now delivered remarks about the prayer banner’s removal over the weekend.
Votto said the banner’s removal cost a total of about $2,500, the majority spent on labor, which was done in-house by district workers. Because the work was done internally, it saved considerable money, Votto said.
A work crew came in at 7 a.m. on Saturday and the banner was gone by 2 p.m. On Sunday, new drywall was plastered in to the hole left behind.
The banner itself is in storage at an undisclosed facility. Votto said it will remain in “a holding pattern until the School Committee decides what to do with the banner.”
The 400-pound banner was braced and lowered using a rope system after the plaster was cut. The banner was transported to the secure, non-climate-controlled facility using a city box truck. The banner itself was six inches thick and and eight feet by four feet in size.
In late February, former Cranston City Councilman Jeffrey P. Barone wrote Superintendent Peter Nero with an offer to pay for the banner's removal so it can be donated to the class of 1963, the schools first graduating class, which gave the banner to the school as its class gift.
But in the meantime, the banner will be locked away.