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ACLU Files Lawsuit Against Prayer Banner

ACLU officials and Jessica Ahlquist, the plaintiff, filed a preliminary injunction in District Court today challenging the Constitutionality of the Prayer Banner at Cranston West.

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 . 

Paul Auger May 02, 2011 at 06:29 PM
Anne Just because something happened does not make it right or constitutional. Using your logic just because racial discrimination happened it must have been OK! I did not see the Press conference but what you described is NOT OK and I echo your question, Where is separation of church and state???? Our brave Navy Seals risked life and limb to do what had to be done. What do you want us to do about it? You and others like you want to give thanks to the invisible man in they sky for their success. GOD had NOTHING to do with it it was the blood sweat and tears of our best and bravest that wrought this victory, not an imaginary friend. To give credit to god for this is a slap in the face to those who are truly responsible. The strange thing is that al-Qaida wants the government to pray too, in fact al-Qaida wants to use government to make their religious law the law of the land. This is what was at the root of 911, remember faith wont move mountains, but faith will fly planes into buildings. The religious right would love to make their holy book the law of the land, they are our al-Qaida , they are the Taliban on our shores. How long will it be until we need to be rescued from a religious extremist like Bin Laden, such as Pat Robinson, Jay Sekulow, Bishop Tobin, Rick Warren or the Pope?
Anne May 02, 2011 at 07:54 PM
I only said that around noon time Obama gave a remembrance speech for the men and women who served in the korean war and he mentioned bin laden being killed..before this there was a very public, very holy prayer and at the end of his speech he said "one nation under God, etc etc...All I said was if there is separation of church and state and it is such a law why was that done and it is always done......I am asking that of the people in the forum who ahve stated over and over again about it being law...that is what I am addressing here. I too believe God had nothing to do with it..nothing...because if He did, 9-11 would not have happened at all...So I am with ya there.
Brendan May 02, 2011 at 11:14 PM
+1 Paul. I don't care if the president makes a speech, the president isn't the government, he runs it. He also said in the speech "whatever god you choose to pray to." So, Anna, you are a deist? Just wondering. This is just a speech, not a banner endorsing religion. Also the 5 year old response "Where is separation of church and state now???????" was frankly immature.
Anne May 03, 2011 at 01:42 AM
The president this afternoon did not say believe in what god you want etc...HE SAID A PRAYER before a press release and he cited one nation under god before he left the podium...that was my POINT>>HE PRAYED...so where is separation of church and state?????? you can't answer the damn questionso you state bullshit as usual....and attack becuase you have no freaking answer.
Anne May 03, 2011 at 01:43 AM
what the hell speech are you talking about...hahahah i isn't th same one...do you watch the news...or just cartoons you looney tune
Brendan May 03, 2011 at 03:21 AM
You have problems. Show me what speech you think demonstrates a lack of separation of church and state, and we'll go from there, bitch. Yes I said it, go ahead, get offended by a word, I don't care.
Brendan May 03, 2011 at 04:23 AM
It is still there. We, contrary to popular idiotic, arrogant Christian belief, do NOT have a Christian country, but a SECULAR one. We have freedom of expression, that is why he is allowed to say that. Can you read? Because I am starting to doubt it. I do have a freaking answer you just don't like it because it refutes your non-arguments.
Anne May 03, 2011 at 10:55 AM
hahaha Brendan is showing is true psychotic colors....it was not a speech for the third time. Can you read? It was a ceremony honoring the Korean war soldiers and before it they said a prayer with heads bowed and then AMEN..got it now???? No separation of church and state...the president was PRAYING PUBLICALLY Got it now dope Ass
Brendan May 03, 2011 at 09:43 PM
You've been showing your true colors this whole time, those of a stupid Christian bigot. So what if the president makes a prayer? Doesn't mean there isn't separation of church and state, nor does it imply any preference to Christianity as a religion in any government sponsored institution. The president, as I've said many times, is allowed free expression just like the rest of us. The problem lies when you favor one clearly. Learn to read before posting moronic bullshit and incomprehensible insanity.
David Davis May 04, 2011 at 02:32 AM
The level of ignorance has hit an all time low on both sides of this argument.
Brendan May 04, 2011 at 09:07 PM
It was originally an intelligent debate, when Anne came in and included insults in every post. Now it has been reduced to petty whining and bickering.
Liberty Janus May 05, 2011 at 04:29 PM
Her posts are indistinguishable from those of a troll, attempting to divert discussion into emotionally charged and inflamed personal responses through insult and irrelevant tangents. A deliberate troll, or just an ignorant fool? Or both?
Mr magoo 25 October 18, 2011 at 06:09 AM
In the end the banner will come down. I think it is a frivolous lawsuit to get attention , and a ploy to stick it to a majority of believers, but the lawsuit will probably prevail. I hold no particular animosity, but I have sadness over this. She is not being harmed by this banner , that's silly. I understand separation of church and state. Its just sad the time and efforts to stick it to the majority over a 50 yr old banner . Lol times have changed since "the leave it to beaver " age(1963). If there were coercion to pray, or something like that, then step in indeed., My faith whatever I have will not be effected by this. I have family who are atheist/agnostic, and they say there are battles to fight , but this one. Nope . Life will go on. Faith or no faith will go on. I suspect the banner will go, and "law" will prevail. Guess I'll go watch "leave it to beaver", and smile. may divine wisdom guide us all. May we all find peace
Suzanne Arena October 19, 2011 at 01:45 AM
And how does this argument stand against the might dollar bill? @ Robin states it's a public school (obviously) and we have a Public money system which bears the words "In God we Trust", so I find any argument to be hyprocritical and should be dismissed. Let her and her clan put up their own POSITIVE Banner. Give her a solution without the money!
mike Duquette January 12, 2012 at 04:10 PM
Just because you see nothing wrong, does not mean, there is nothing wrong. The school chose to fight this in court, and thus, now must pay for the costs of doing so. They could have just taken down the banner. So blame them, for the money lost.
RDT January 16, 2012 at 02:51 PM
It took just a few women to remove prayer from the schools a few years ago but they did not remove prayer from the people. We as Christians are still able to worship at our local churces and pray and help those in need in our state and around the world. Christians give more in money to those in need then all other relgious and non relgious groups in the USA and around the world. Each day children in need wake up somewhere and are fed and shown the love and kindness of Christ. It will take more than the removal of a plaque or removal of prayer in a school to change a love which peple have for their God. No blog from a Atheist can remove one act of kindness shown. So go ahead remove the plaque from the school, take out the statue in front of a Govement Building that has the ten commandents on it or take away the nativity scene during Christmas in front of the town hall, but you will never remove God from the hearts of His people.
C W January 16, 2012 at 07:42 PM
Thanks, RDT. As you said, you're still free to practice your religion freely, and there are a lot of great things Christianity teaches, even though I disagree with some of the magical supernatural stuff like dragons, resurrections, and talking donkeys. However, a taxpayer-funded public school is just not allowed to endorse one religion over another. As a Christian, you might not appreciate your kids going to a public school under a prayer banner that reads: "Our Prophet Muhammed..." "Buddha, our source of Enlghtenment..." "Zeus, Father of lightning and storms..." or "Gaia, or Earth Mother..." so you can see how somebody might not appreciate their school community saying "Our Heavenly Father" when that person clearly doesn't think they have a magical paternal family member residing in an invisible dimension called "Heaven".
C W January 16, 2012 at 07:51 PM
Exodus 21:20-21: " 20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property." ...so, according to your religion, I can smack my slaves around with a stick, right? 'long as I don't kill 'em or cause serious injuries?
Jon Spangler January 16, 2012 at 11:37 PM
As a lieflong active Christian I am offended by blatantly religious messages illegally appearing in public institutions as this banner does. Numerous Supreme Court decisions have made it clear that exclusive religious messages have no place in public spaces, regardless of how beneficial many of us may feel about their content. Our nation is governed under a Constitution that clearly marks out the separation between church and state. I support Jessica Ahlquists's suit. She has the law on her side and has the absolute right to live and express herself without harassment from so-called Christians, who should do better at loving their neighbor (Jessica) than they are so far. I don't want the state meddling in my religious life, either. (That's why the "firewall" separating religion and government exists.)
Anne January 16, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Prayer is not christian...prayer is the practice of conversing to a higher being. The being can be buddah, ahlah or whomever......that prayer is NOT CHRISTIAN..it does NOT MENTION CHRIST....My GOD people...stop saying christian prayer!!!
Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide January 17, 2012 at 04:01 AM
RDT needs a short course in current American history. It did not take "a few women" to remove prayer from PUBLIC schools--it took one woman: Madalyn Murray O'Hair (a friend of mine who was murdered in Texas) who believed strongly in the right to not believe (as well as believe) and with the Danbury CT Baptists wanted to strengthen the wall separating state and church. The issue is not about a "christian" or "muslim" or "buddhist" prayer, but the public propaganda for religion and a "heavenly father" (why not a mother?) with the final word being "Amen" (which translates as "Lord, let it be so"). The banner is patently offensive to Jews, agnostics, atheists, and others, and Roger Williams, a Baptist, worked to make Rhode Island free of any sectarianism that would only bring strife and violence.
Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide January 17, 2012 at 04:09 AM
"One nation under [what? which? how many?] god" was a response to the McCarthy hearings when USA citizens had few rights and the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities led by US Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI) and Representative Richard M. Nixon (R-CA) used it as a crutch to push through the most facist laws in history. The 1950s were known as the Age of Fear in all US History books, and with that fear came the rise of religion--which is why the American people were terrified of voting for a Roman Catholic candidate as president that did not change until JFK promised in Houston TX that Rome would never control him nor the presidency. Today we are in danger of another Roman Catholic, Rick Santorum, who openly says that his religion, Rome, and Opus Dei will guide his actions, words, and policy. Leave god out of the equation, silence Opus Dei (it has four bishops in the USA) and end the embassy to the Vatican and democracy may have a chance in the USA.
Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide January 17, 2012 at 04:12 AM
This nation was not founded by Christians nor on the principles of Christianity. Thomas Jefferson use the Codex of Cyrus of Persia for the Constitution. In the Continental Congress were five atheists, three Christians and the rest were deists. The purpose for the Constitution was to give all males an equal chance if they were white. It was the Declaration of Independence that made "all men equal" and promised "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"--and none of that is found in any Christian Bible, where in Matthew 10:34, Jesus promises to bring a sword and separate families. Leave Christianity for mythologists; leave democracy for patriots.
Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide January 17, 2012 at 04:14 AM
The word "god" went on the USA currency in the 1950s in response to the Red Scare pushed by the Roman Catholic Church as US Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI). You will not find it on any other coin before the Age of Fear pushed by McCarthy and Nixon.
Suzanne Arena January 17, 2012 at 05:15 AM
Most interesting Dr. Ide....I have always believed in "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead. But, I find what Madalyn did as more rewarding. Sorry for you loss. I will always agrue that until Government takes it out of their currency which is used by all denominations and walks of life...than it should have no legs to grow outside of that courtroom argument. What bothers me is the $$$$ the lawyers that run this State enterprise on and our children go with less. Humph...sigh....
Anne January 17, 2012 at 11:10 AM
Dr. Ide you are wrong..it went on COINS many many years before 1950...try 1800's....you people are all idiots........You try to twist and manipulate history to suit your beliefs..maybe we all do that, but bottom line is christian and judism were the main religions and all were UNDER A GOD..some kind of GOD....all they had to do with that so called prayer is remove heavenly father and remove amen....DONE ...such stupidity.
RDT January 17, 2012 at 08:18 PM
If you look up the Constitution of the US it does not contain the words seperation or church if you look it up on line you can check it your self. The title of the 1 Amedment is Freedom of Relgion, Press, Expression. The first amendment states:Amendment 1 - Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression. Ratified 12/15/1791. Note Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. So all you Atheists please explain why you keep saying that separation of church and state in the Constiuttion.
Joe The Plumber January 18, 2012 at 01:53 AM
I say leave it up and keep it covered as a reminder of this historic set of events.
Joe The Plumber January 18, 2012 at 02:01 AM
Or as a work of art.... then hire the ACLU to defend it's display if anyone challenges it..........
Jon Spangler January 18, 2012 at 07:07 AM
Well said, Brendan (and Janus, and Ace Rexington... :-)

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