The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union officially filed a preliminary injunction in District Court today challenging the constitutionality of the prayer banner that hangs in the auditorium at Cranston High School West.
The announcement was made at a press conference inside the offices of the state ACLU in Providence. The plaintiff in the case is Jessica Ahlquist, a Cranston West Sophomore and self-described atheist who has been at the center of the controversy, which began after the ACLU sent a letter to Cranston School Superintendent Peter Nero in July of 2010 informing him of the perceived unconstitutionality of the prayer banner.
The issue has been controversial. The School Committee held a number of public hearings, during which tempers flared and people both for and against the banner filled the auditorium at Western Hills Middle School to voice their opinions. Based on those discussions, it appears a majority supports leaving the banner intact. But Ahlquist and the ACLU remain critical of it, citing the obvious religious nature of the phrase "Our Heavenly Father" and "Amen" within a school setting.
“A Christian Catholic prayer may bring comfort to the majority of students in my school,” said a confident and composed Ahlquist, who sat surrounded by her father, two lawyers, the ACLU Executive Director Steve Brown, a reverend and a rabbi. “But it sends a different message to the large population of students of other faith or in my case, none. I firmly believe that it should not be on display in a public school.”
The lawyer representing the case for the ACLU is Lynette Labinger. Labinger is a partner in the law firm Roney & Labinger and has been practicing civil rights law since the mid 1970s, according to a profile of her in “The Advocate.” Thomas Bender, a RI ACLU volunteer attorney, will assist her in the case.
Labinger has a strong history of defending underrepresented and unpopular civil rights cases. She was the lead attorney in Cohen v. Brown (1991), which granted women’s college sports equal funding as their male counterparts.
“[It] is the genius of the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights and the unique message that it stands for and conveys… that we have freedom in this country to practice whatever religion we choose, or none at all and that Government should not be taking sides, particularly in our public schools,” wrote Labinger in a press release given out at the conference, “It takes an extraordinary amount of courage for a young person such as Jessica to come forward, in the face of often heated and angry rhetoric.”
Labinger said at the conference that the lawsuit notes the “anger and outrage” directed at people like Jessica who have questioned the prayer for the controversial beginning ‘Our Heavenly Father’ and end, ‘Amen.’
She said the ACLU would be seeking both a preliminary and permanent injunction to prohibit the prayer’s continued display at Cranston West. The lawsuit is also seeking compensatory damages, including interest, "for the injuries suffered by Jessica Ahlquist as a result of the deprivation of her rights by the City of Cranston."
Rabbi Peter Stein, a leader of a congregation in Cranston, and Reverend Don Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Consulate of Ministers, were also on hand to express their disapproval of the prayer.
“This is a moment to defend a clear separation between church and state,” said Rabbi Stein. He also reiterated what School Committee member Steven Bloom said at the meeting when the committee decided to defend the banner that Jews would not be comfortable with the prayer because it feels Christian.
“While the prayer is written with the hope of being mutual and non denominational it certainly does not fit with my own Jewish traditions,” said Rabbi Stein.
Reverend Anderson, a 1966 Cranston West graduate, detailed Rhode Island’s rich history of religious freedom and said that the prayer stood in contrast with those historical values.
“As an alumnus of Cranston West and as a Baptist minister in the tradition of John Clark and Roger Williams I have come today to state my agreement with the ACLU,” said Anderson, “An official school prayer, no matter how well intentioned, is inconsistent with the spirit of Rhode Island and the United States Constitution.”
Brown said that he had received dozens of informal complaints about the prayer, but the only formal one is Ahlquist’s. Ahlquist said Brown e-mailed her and asked if she would like to be the plaintiff in the case and she agreed after the school committee decided to move forward with defending the banner.
When asked why it took so long for the ACLU to take action on the banner, which has been displayed in the auditorium since 1963, Labinger said “we were all surprised that existed when we found out in 2010.”
Ahlquist said she hasn’t been confronted directly in school about her strong stance on the issue, but has heard rumors that people want to hurt her. She said she embraces traditions that were started by religious holidays such as exchanging gifts on Christmas or trick-or-treating on Halloween, but that she does not believe in the religious sentiments behind them.
She said she was frustrated with the school committee who “had their minds made up from the beginning” and that this was the next place to turn.
“People are not happy about this and they get aggressive,” she said, “It does get scary.”
However, she holds fast to her values.
“I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in ‘Our Heavenly Father’,” she said.
“I expect the hate to keep coming as it has been, but that’s no longer an issue to me.”
The ACLU will hold the city of Cranston responsible for all attorneys’ fees they incur if they win the case, said Steven Brown.
The School Committee. Last week, it announced it had .