The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union will take legal action against the Cranston School District after school officials to keep a prayer mural on the wall at Cranston High School West.
In a release, the ACLU said it erred in "expecting school officials to take their constitutional duties seriously" and would take legal action against the district after the committee voted 4-3 to keep the banner, "ignoring warnings about the cost of litigation and despite the school district's ongoing and severe budgetary problems, which has led to layoffs and program cuts."
The ACLU raised the issue last July after a complaint from a parent. In a letter to the district, 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."
Many residents at the public forum argued that the banner was written secularly and can relate to someone of any religion, including its author, David Bradley, who wrote it in 1960. More of a moral prayer, supporters say, it asks "Our Heavenly Father" to grant school members the desire to do their best and live morally and decently.
Even though the banner has been posted since 1963, "crucial protections of the Bill of Rights" have been around even longer, Brown said. Citing Supreme Court decisions, the district can't argue that a lack of complaints means the banner is any less unconstitutional, Brown wrote in the July 6 letter, and justifications that prayers like this are "ceremonial" or "non-sectarian" only "serves to trivialize what is, at its core, a deeply religious message. It is, after all, an entreaty to God."
The banner issue is reminiscent of a time when Pawtucket City officials justified the display of a nativity scene by comparing a Christmas creche to a Thanksgiving turkey, "as nothing more than just another secular symbol of a national holiday," Brown said. "The genius of the First Amendment principle barring government entanglement with religion is that it protects majority religions from being trivialized or politicized by governmental actions that only weaken the meaning of religion itself."
A School Committee working group is weighing legal options. One possibility involves the city defending the school district for free. The district is also soliciting donations for the prayer's defense fund.
A previous complaint was lodged against the banner but it was resolved between the district and the complainant, school officials said. In this most recent case, the district didn't know about the complaint until the ACLU letter.
School Committee Member Frank Lombardi acknowledged at the meeting that if the district were to lose this case, they will have to pay for it. But upholding the morality of the student population was an important part of his job and therefore would be supporting the “non-denominational” prayer.
School Committee Member Michael Traficante reiterated that point. He said the banner in his opinion is not discriminatory.
“It’s our obligation to protect the moral fabric of our students,” Traficante said. “And that banner does that.”