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As Committee Nears Appeal Decision, Banner Saga Reaches New York Times

The School Committee will vote on whether to appeal or not on Feb. 16.

The Cranston West prayer banner saga continues to drag on, but there could be an end to it on Feb. 16.

That's when the School Committee will finally vote to appeal or not to appeal ordering the prayer banner hanging in the auditorium removed.

About 200 people came out to a School Committee budget hearing earlier this week to comment for and against the banner. The crowd was divided nearly equally between supporters of Jessica Ahlquist, the plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by the Rhode Island Chapter of the American with Civil Liberties Union, and proponents of an appeal.

But the committee did not allow public comment at the meeting and School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi informed the crowd that they would not be able to speak on non-agenda items, prompting the vast majority in attendence to get up and leave.

School Committee Member Janice Ruggieri expressed frustration towards the departing crowd, noting that they were walking out of a budget hearing — one of the most important jobs the committee does in a calendar year.

The Feb. 16 meeting could be contentious, with supporters of the banner planning to wear T-shirts displaying a photo of the banner and Ahlquist supporters sporting shirts stating "evil little thing," a jab at Rep. Peter Polombo, who used the expression to label Ahlquist on local talk radio shortly after the court decision was announced.

Meanwhile, the city as a whole is showing signs of banner exhaustion. Although there has been continued public discussion and many vocal people on both sides of the issue, the majority interviewed in recent days said they're ready to move on.

But it has been hard with the state's daily paper chasing after the story day after day and the topic being revisited repeatedly on talk radio. The controversy, for many, has begun to resemble a circus with out-of-towners showing up at meetings proclaiming to speak on behalf of Cranston residents.

Today, for example, the Providence Journal reported that Ahlquist, a 16-year-old junior at Cranston West, is denying a report that she will be transferring to a different school. That report apparently stemmed from a report by WPRO that was based on rumors posted on Facebook by another student. Why the rumor made it into a reporter's story remains unclear. What is clear is that many Cranston residents have begun to wonder if all these details really matter and whether the state's media outlets have started to lose sight of the real issue at hand. Are these small details about Ahlquist worth reporting nearly a month after the decision was announced?

"It's time to move on," said School Committee member Stephanie Culhane. "There are so many other important issues facing the district."

But now the story has another spotlight pointing at it: The New York Times.

Ahlquist told the Times that she thinks people upset about the court decision may not realize it is in their best interest.

“It’s almost like making a child get a shot even though they don’t want to. It’s for their own good. I feel like they might see it as a very negative thing right now, but I’m defending their Constitution, too,” she said.

To review the dozens of stories we've reported on the prayer banner case dating back more than a year, click HERE.

Robin Lionheart January 27, 2012 at 05:17 PM
“..., the majority interviewed in recent days said they're ready to move on. But it has been hard with the state's daily paper chasing after the story day after day...” Also, local reporters like Mark Schieldrop writing a new story about it every week.
Cranstonparent January 27, 2012 at 05:30 PM
"School Committee Member Janice Ruggieri expressed frustration towards the departing crowd, noting that they were walking out of a budget hearing — one of the most important jobs the committee does in a calendar year." I did not attend the budget hearing because I was afraid it would turn into another banner debate. "The controversy, for many, has begun to resemble a circus with out-of-towners showing up at meetings proclaiming to speak on behalf of Cranston residents." Waaaaay too many out-of-towners at recent Cranston School Committee meetings!
Ed January 27, 2012 at 08:18 PM
This is why people get "HOT" and "HEATED"... Ahlquist told the Times that she thinks people upset about the court decision may not realize it is in their best interest. “It’s almost like making a child get a shot even though they don’t want to. It’s for their own good. I feel like they might see it as a very negative thing right now, but I’m defending their Constitution, too,” she said. I do not want, nor do I need, a 16 year old "radical" who is not even a High School graduate defending me, my family, or the community I live in (Cranston). She wants to get into politics, start with the student council, finish High School, go get a college degree and then, and only then, when she has a "little" knowledge (which is a lot more than she has now) has she EARNED the ability to speak up about what an educated community needs... Jessica, take a seat in "Romper Room" and don't tell me what I need!!! I'll tell you what you need in a country second (education and knowledge, you don't have it and it is PRICELESS!!!) and I'll guarantee I'm a lot more accurate than you, PERIOD!!!
Ross Stapleton-Gray January 27, 2012 at 10:00 PM
While it may rub you the wrong way to hear the message from a 16-year-old, she's really just a proxy for the courts, which have consistently held that public institutions ought not to host religious speech. If by "radical," you mean, "helped to upset a situation that many enjoyed, despite its being contrary to law," we could use more of those. (Personally, I wouldn't use a shot analogy, as that rolls in a whole 'nother set of issues, e.g., assumption of a non-zero risk--of suffering adverse effects from an inoculation--in order to lessen another, greater risk--of getting a disease--and increasing the community's security against epidemic. I think it's sufficient to say, "Those who're religious ought to be grateful for the courts' interpretation of the 1st amendment, as it ensures that no other religion can use the government to oppress them.")
Ross Stapleton-Gray January 27, 2012 at 10:02 PM
(That's also a pretty rude comment to make to a fellow citizen, even if the facts and the law weren't on her side.)
Mary January 28, 2012 at 12:53 AM
Not only is Jessica correct in law, the law is there for a good reason. Note this from the Warick Beacon: "Rabbi Amy Levin, vice president of the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis, said she has spoken with former Cranston West students who felt uncomfortable with the banner when it was put up in their school nearly 50 years ago. She said the families and individuals she talked with were afraid to make their stance known during an era of such religious fortitude. “Jessica, 50 years later, managed to give voice to their discomfort,” said Levin."
Joe The Plumber January 28, 2012 at 12:55 AM
You know Ross , I'm sick and tired of people like you making issues out od comments such as the "shot" analogy by the previous poster. You are so transparent in your attempt to create controversy where there is none. Everyone reading the post knows that the refernce made was to a medication or innoculation and here is an insensitive idiot like you trying to misrepresent the comment to further your sinister motive. It is people like you Ross who have made this debate into a circus. You should be ashamed of yourself.
Mary January 28, 2012 at 12:58 AM
Similarly, those Catholics who believe they are righteously defending their faith are ignoring their own bishop: “Nonetheless, resorting to personally insulting and even threatening language in such public controversies is totally unacceptable, especially when directed at a young person such as Jessica Ahlquist who has every right to promote her beliefs and express her opinion,” Bishop Tobin said in a statement.
Mary January 28, 2012 at 01:11 AM
One more comment for those who are upset that out-of-towners seem to be interested, the Cranston banner debacle is now also being covered in international papers including in Israel, Germany and the United Kingdom. Let's just say that Cranston Christians are not showing their best side to the world. Robin Lionheart, this issue is important, and is not the drummed-up-by-the-media nuisance that you seem to think it is. The US has a great balance with freedom of speech that is the envy of Europe, and the constitutional constraints are not onerous. It is important for all people in the US to protect this valuable heritage, and not get swept up in some sort of power play against a teenager who is doing the right thing for you all. The school could have simply altered or removed the banner without making a media circus of it long ago.
Ross Stapleton-Gray January 28, 2012 at 01:12 AM
You seem to have problems in parsing what you read. I posted that I thought Jessica's choice of a shot analogy wasn't ideal, as it invites another whole set of issues (as heated as this one is, there are other sites where anti-vaccination battles are in full swing). But you go ahead, Joe, express outrage.
Cranstonparent January 28, 2012 at 02:28 AM
I, for one, am not upset or surprised that out-of-towners are interested. I am angry the school committee seems totally surprised by the ruling, and totally unprepared to deal with it. One question I have is why out-of-towners and out-of-staters are allowed to speak at our school committee meetings. The school committee open sessions should be open to Cranston residents ONLY. At the very least, only Cranston residents should be allowed to speak in the public session.
Mary January 28, 2012 at 05:21 AM
Cranstonparent, Fair enough, I can understand keeping the school committee meetings as local affairs. The meeting where the rules were waived to allow a pastor to speak twice, but no-one else, drew attention that you probably didn't want, and so it would be a good idea to lay some reasonable ground rules and stick to them, because it is also reasonable to expect the meetings to be under scrutiny. It might be an idea to get someone in to speak that isn't locally involved, say a constitutional lawyer. Having clergy speak is more problematic, because it makes it clear that the issue of the banner is religious, not historical. That said, I'm sure Bishop Tobin would be able to keep the meeting from becoming a witchhunt, if he were available.
Kimberly Manchester January 30, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Here s the voice of a current student: http://www.asktazi.com/2012/01/extra-edition-student-response-to.html
Ed January 30, 2012 at 03:11 PM
Ross, when a 16 year old tells me that she knows what I need and that she is defending my Constitution, I have a problem with that!!! She doesn't have one diploma yet, hasn't studied enough about the Constitution, and I'll bet she can't recite two lines of it without stumbling, and "God" forbid if we got to quiz her on it, that would really prove my point... Otherwise all she is saying is that all the degrees hanging on my wall are useless, she didn't need 'um... She needs to get back to school, period. If the heat is too hot for her, then change school, BUT GET BACK TO SCHOOL and learn, then good things will happen...
Robin Lionheart January 30, 2012 at 09:01 PM
Perhaps they thought their imaginary friend would not allow them to lose. Like Harold Camping warning everyone of the impending Rapture, last May. Despite his several previous predictions failing, he seemed unprepared for yet another failure. He was certain the infallible Bible said so, coded in numerology, so it must come to pass. But it did not, because there are no secret messages from his imaginary friend hidden in his book of bronze age fairytales.
Prof. Frederick Sweet February 07, 2012 at 05:38 AM
Under U.S. Federal Law, if a plaintiff is successful in a court decision supporting a violation of her First Amendment rights, the defendant (Cranston High School West and its school board) are obliged to pay her legal expenses. That's the law. In this case, Jessica Ahlquist is entitled to only $25 in damages. Incidentally, if I were Jessica's parents, I'd seek from the courts a restraining order against those lawless Cranston, RI thugs causing their threats of violence preventing their daughter from attending school. Then it would be up to the Cranston Police and FBI to enforce the restraining order. The ACLU gave Cranston High School West and its school board eight months to comply with the law BEFORE taking them to court. If they had complied, it would have cost Cranston RI nothing. Clearly, it is not Jessica Ahlquist's fault that now because of the school board 's arrogance and poor judgement, they are required to further impoverish Cranston High School West by losing $173,000. Cranston's public school board has very poor judgement. At the next election, it must be replaced by competent officials ... otherwise Cranston's school system will continue losing money in these economically hard times.
Robin Lionheart February 11, 2012 at 05:50 PM
I agree. Mark’s done a great job following this important issue. But when Mark suggested “banner exhaustion” was caused by the daily paper and talk radio, it seemed disingenuous to me to omit this paper’s weekly coverage. That’s all I was saying.

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