Emotional Crowd Demands Committee Appeal Banner Ruling

Western Hills Middle School at times had the atmosphere of a religious service for Tuesday night's meeting during which a crowd of more than 200 sang hymns and took turns demanding the School Committee appeal a court ruling ordering the banner removed.

In a meeting that included police escorts, a resident hurling dollar bills towards the Dias, loud cheers and some boos, the Cranston School Committee on Tuesday heard from a crowd of nearly 250 residents demanding they appeal a court ruling ordering the prayer banner at Cranston High School West come down.

Although the highlight of the night’s agenda was , the auditorium at Western Hills Middle School was packed in the first School Committee meeting since and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, ordering the banner removed.

Many wore signs that stated “APPEAL – or vote them out!” The vast majority in attendance were there to call for an appeal and decry the court decision, though several speakers did urge the committee not to appeal and said it would be a lost cause, including Ahlquist herself, who was led in and out of the auditorium by an entourage of Cranston Police officers.

Before the meeting started, the crowd broke out into song, at first by singing God Bless America and eventually drifting into Christian hymns — perhaps a reflection of what

Patrick McAssey, student council president, began the public comment by stating he believes the prayer is “not in fact a Christian prayer,” bur rather a “positive statement that reaches all walks of life.”

McAssey said “Heavenly Father,” and “Amen,” which is how the prayer begins and ends, could relate to many religions, not just Christianity. That’s why he believes the banner should stay.

“Despite all the unwanted attention brought to this school, we should appeal this case,” McAssey said. “If we’re going to go down, let’s go down fighting.”

Resident Lisa French declared the judge’s decision “an unconstitutional ruling” and warned the committee that a precedent is being set.

“How should a small minority be able to decide what should stand and what should not stand? I don’t know what kind of math you’re using but when I went to school, two is greater than one.”

French reiterated a frequently-made point during the meeting, that many believe since “separation of church and state” does not explicitly, word for word, appear in the constitution, there is no reason why the government can’t sponsor prayer and religion. And she warned that the entire committee would be voted out if they didn’t choose to appeal.

“If you don’t defend the banner, you will not be reelected,” French shouted. “Any of you!”

Taylor Grenga, a junior at Cranston West, said she thinks that although the banner contains “a good moral message,” that is not a reason to keep it because the school already has a school creed hanging in the auditorium.

Grenga was booed by some members of the audience, which prompted Nero to scold the crowd for not setting a good example, he said.

“The last few days, we’ve seen attacks — some of them which we have no control over, which are on blog sites. And you wonder where everybody’s getting down on kids for saying these things but you folks who boo — you’re setting the example for these kids,” Nero said. “We have not sent a good sample and you folks need to set a good example.”

Even before the public comment period began, School Committee chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi warned the crowd that anyone speaking ill will of Ahlquist “clearly does not understand the intent of the banner and will be asked to leave,” adding that even if she doesn’t agree with Ahlquist, “we can all recognize her bravery for standing up for what she believes in.”

But some in the crowd couldn’t contain their frustration, including French, who screamed that she was being slandered when Kerri Kelleher spoke and refuted an assertion by a previous speaker — who identified herself as a Narragansett resident — that the district has a $133 million budget and could easily afford to continue the legal battle.

Iannazzi ordered French to be escorted from the room after she rushed towards the stage and threw a fistful of bills towards the committee.

“Here’s your money,” she shouted.

Ahquist herself addressed the committee and urged its members not to pursue an appeal. She noted that Judge Lagueux is a Catholic and conservative “and even he sees this is not to be in a public school.”

“This is not about religion,” Ahlquist said. “This is about the Constitution and it always has been. Religion does not have a place in public school and this country was not founded on the idea of Christianity and Christian principles. It was founded on the idea of religious freedom. If you want to defend the Constitution, you will remove the banner.”

And then there was Ray Bosscia, a longtime Cranston resident who said he intitially was in favor of keeping the banner, but after reading Lagueux’s decision, he has begun to think “he may be right.”

Bosscia said maybe a “Our heavenly father” and “amen” could be removed from the banner to keep it in place. That was a suggestion from the ACLU early on, but the committee rejected it.

“If we had done that in the beginning, would we be here now?”

The committee did not take any action on the banner issue at the meeting. School Committee Member Frank Lombardi said he appreciated everyone who showed interest in the issue and “think it provides for spirited debate.”

The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, which provided legal services to the school district, will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks and will let the committee know if an appeal is worth considering. That means no action will be taken anytime soon, Lombardi said.

Pete Kelleher January 20, 2012 at 04:10 PM
Doesn't matter what side your beliefs put you on this issue. Bottom line is the school committee is already operating the schools below the bep (basic education plan), which is state mandated, due to funding. There is no money for ANY litigation. Any money needed would come out of the school committee's budget, which DIRECTLY AFFECTS THE CHILDREN OF CRANSTON. I am pretty sure that whatever you believe on this issue, that same belief system you side with does not advocate hurting children to win your point. "if you leave the banner up, I will sue" or "if you take the banner down I will sue" ......really? Nice. We have entire classrooms without textbooks, and this is what you believe Cranston should spend money on? Do your homework on the big picture and how many kids will be affected by your lawsuits.
Me January 20, 2012 at 04:36 PM
Well said!! The Cranston East Music Department entered a national contest to win money for their music department because there are no funds for the dwindling program. They worked hard and fortunately won a cash prize. It's absolutely disgusting that people are now fighting to keep something up that is legally prohibited. Where is all this money coming from? There is no music in the elementary schools. There is no music or sports in the middle schools. Eventually, the high schools will have nothing. Lack of extracurricular activities will not benefit future generations of Cranston children. The absence of a prayer banner will not have an ill effect on their education. Priorities need to be put in order for the school department's budget. Textbooks, music programs and sports should be first on the list. Children's education should be a priority in the schools. Prayers and religious beliefs should be taught in the home. A prayer banner hanging in the auditorium is not going to make the difference between graduationg or dropping out. Wake up!
Janice Ruggieri January 20, 2012 at 04:52 PM
I would like to clear up the notion that the ACLU said they would allow the banner to stay if the words "Our Heavenly Father" and "Amen" were removed. This suggestion was rejected by the ACLU who had issues with some words in the body of the text. The ACLU presented their own version of what would be acceptable to them and that text was not simply the removal of the 4 words but was a reworded text. Some members of the School Committee felt that the first three words and the last word being removed was a positive compromise but this was not offered as a choice from the subcommittee.
Ron DesJarlais January 20, 2012 at 05:09 PM
Well said.
Jim Carr January 20, 2012 at 05:21 PM
I have not read any comments here from any contributor regarding the rightful decision renderred recently Re: " Cranston West Banner" The court has spoken. Wisely I might add. In spite of that, and regardless of the decision of said court, the opinion has been handed down. If the decision were different and in favor of the radical left, well, that is the opinion of the court as well. What poor, disheartening, irresponsible examples are being exhibited by the parents of the MINOR children when they show anger, hatred and bigorty in repsonse to a decision form an appointed judge. It is surely a displasy of poor, misguided parenting that is evident and certainly that same poor parenting continues with the same group shouting at the officials at soccer, hockey , football and baseball games. The very same irrational rhetoric shown at the recent committee meeting, I am sure, is shown at the sporting events of their children! How sad. How very irresponsibly sad! I have NO intention to respond ot read any rebuttals. That is certain. Nicely done Ms. Ahlquist. My fedora is off to you!! Spelling errors? Maybe. get over it! Enjoy the snow!
Me January 20, 2012 at 05:24 PM
Money is being wasted!!! Bottom line!!!
Rab January 20, 2012 at 05:38 PM
Thank you for clearing that up Janice. ; ) I didn't know that they wanted the body of the text changed also.
ELM January 20, 2012 at 06:23 PM
All of you foolish protesters should just go pray in your homes and churches--not in our public buildings! I have never seen such ignorance. I am ashamed to be a Rhode Islander right now.
Don Botts January 20, 2012 at 08:12 PM
I thought so. Earlier I was trying to find a quote from Steven Brown regarding not accepting the removal of the top and bottom lines. Wasn't successful.
Ross Stapleton-Gray January 20, 2012 at 08:24 PM
French [said] "...there is no reason why the government can’t sponsor prayer and religion." "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" is probably the best one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Establishment_Clause I'm not all that surprised, but certainly dismayed, by the thuggish, moblike response to citizens like Ahlquist and Grenga, who not only are entitled to express their opinions without being shouted down (if not threatened with physical harm), but who pretty clearly turned out to be on the right side of our laws.
Michael January 21, 2012 at 03:17 PM
Will someone please tell me where the law is written that creates a separation of church and state since neither of the words church or state appear in the Constitution of the U.S.
Sven Hartley January 21, 2012 at 07:29 PM
Michael - The right to a "fair trial", the principle of "religious liberty" and the phrase "Bill of Rights" are not in the constitution either. It does not mean that we don't have these principles. The separation of church and state as a way of summarizing the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The phrase has been cited repeatedly by the U.S. Supreme Court, starting in 1879 (Reynolds v. United States) when the Court wrote that Jefferson's description of the wall of separation "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment."
Stoney January 22, 2012 at 01:44 AM
When otherwise good people put their personal holy books/scripture before our public and shared secular Constitution – then we are no longer the country which is the birthright of every American – a government which does not cater to nor favor any one religion over another. The ‘Republic’ which Ben Franklin once doubted we could keep is now lost and a majority of Americans are willfully ignorant of the lessons of the Enlightenment and seem to be ‘hell bent’ and doomed to a neo-Medieval theocracy. Our precious secular Constitution is a manifesto against all kings – earthbound and/or celestial. Why do people insist on subverting our birthright for myth and legend? It’s illegal and it’s wrong. Willful subversion of our secular Constitution and the 1st freedoms granted by the Bill of Rights by those who are sworn to uphold the Constitution is tyrannical and treasonous. If the government is going to allow one religious display, it must allow all religious displays – and even displays against religion. After all, government properly is the property of all – all taxpayers and all views and opinions. The government cannot and must not pick and choose what it deems to be acceptable. This also runs afoul of the 1st Amendment. The remedy? Keep public space free from all private (not public) displays. On private property – put what ever you want. But, please, keep the public space free from religious favoritism and coercion.
Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide January 24, 2012 at 03:11 AM
Religion is a private matter, and to whatever god or goddess (singular or plural) a person prays to or rejects as existing is an individual matter. That parents and others would shout down a student or any other speaker shows paranoia of being "bettered" by someone else. Such action as the crowd that was assembled, originally to debate the school budget demonstrates a definitive group psychosis and is antecedental to bullying and worse. When do the pitch forks, the burning torches, the lynching ropes so popular in Rhode Island at the turn of the 19th century return, for the Christianity exposed in the auditorium is a raw reminder of the good Christian monks who pulled the great mathematician Hypatia from her chariot and while reciting the Lord's Prayer pulled the skin from her back and as they sang their hymns to their god threw her living body into the fire that would ultimately consume the remains of the one-time great library at Alexandria before the Coptic Pope Theophilus followed the instructions of the Emperor Theodosius and demanded that only one religious message be put up on buildings--a message conceived in hatred, born in loathing, and raised in inquity that rejected all others that the monks rejected. That message, in Coptic, read "Our Heavenly Father so loves us that he gives us absolution in our murders. Amen."
Robin Lionheart January 25, 2012 at 09:27 AM
What Jefferson termed a “wall of separation between church and state” was expressed by the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”) And the word “state” does appear in the Constitution, frequently. 132 times, including plurals, and not counting any amendments. You should check your factoids next time.


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