Jessica Ahlquist Wins: School Gives Up Religious Banner Fight


By Simon Brown

In a rare display of reason, the Cranston, R.I., School Committee decided not to appeal a court decision in which a judge ordered the removal of a prayer banner at Cranston High School West.

The committee voted 5-2 last night not to appeal the decision, but I suspect it’s not because the committee had a genuine change of heart. After all of the awful things that community has said about Jessica Ahlquist, the 16-year-old who complained about the prayer banner, it’s more likely that reality set in.

As the committee was informed, a prolonged legal fight is real expensive.

Ahlquist’s attorneys have asked for $173,000 in legal fees from the city and Joseph Cavanagh Jr., a lawyer who represented the city, said if the case went all the way to the Supreme Court it could cost an additional $500,000 in legal fees, according to the Associated Press.

"You will be wasting time and incredible resources,” resident Rosemary Tregar said at a forum before the committee vote. “Half a million dollars? How dare you.”

Apparently the dizzying costs of an appeal were enough to persuade two members of the school committee who last year voted to defend the banner in court. Committee member Paula McFarland said there are other fiscal priorities for the city and that its limited money must be spent carefully.

“This is what I don’t like about this community,” she said. “You have divided yourself in half.”

Beyond the cost is the fact that the school committee is on shaky legal ground. Judge Ronald R. Lagueux wrote an excellent and carefully-considered opinion in which he tore apart every claim the school made in defense of the banner.

As my colleague Rob Boston wrote, “In a 40-page slam dunk, Lagueux first dismissed school officials’ claims that Ahlquist had no right to challenge the banner. He then went on to explain why this official school prayer, which has been hanging in the gym since 1963, is patently unconstitutional.”

 “No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that,” Lagueux observed.

Nonetheless, a few misguided people want to keep up the fight.

Christopher Young, who is running for U.S. Congress, said he is speaking with students about suing the school in order to keep the appeal going. A legal fight to continue a legal fight? Now that makes a lot of sense.

Even some students asked the board to appeal. One did so in extremely melodramatic terms.

“We have to appeal for the students of Cranston High School West and we have to appeal for our humanity,” said student David Sears Jr., according to the AP.

No one’s humanity or existence is at stake here. What’s at stake is church-state separation and religious freedom. Continuing this legal battle would be an affront to both concepts.

At least for the time being the case is over and hopefully this will be the last we hear of it. Maybe now the school can get back to what it’s supposed to be doing – educating young people.


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