Cranston prayer mural battle now in court

PROVIDENCE, RI – Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Cranston School Department will lock horns in federal district court Thursday over the constitutionality of a mural in the auditorium of Cranston West High School. It's a clash over whether the painting is religious or historical in nature.

The mural, which is labeled "School Prayer," was donated in 1963 by the first graduating class of Cranston West High School. It calls on "Our heavenly father" for help in mental and moral growth, good sportsmanship, honesty and other values. It ends with the word "Amen."

Last year a freshman named Jessica Ahlquist complained about the banner, claiming that its religious nature was an assault on her atheistic beliefs. The American Civil Liberties Union picked up her cause and on Thursday will do battle with lawyers for the Cranston School Department over its constitutionality. ACLU Rhode Island director Steven Brown says the banner is a clear violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

"We think the case is a simple one and we're hoping the court will agree even though the other side has raised a whole bunch of arguments that we think have no merit whatsoever," says Brown.

The school department's main argument, according to its attorney Joseph Cavanagh Jr., is that the mural is historical in nature. Cavanagh says its intent is to inspire, not force religion on anyone.

"It was given as a gift by our first class and it's just there. We never refer to it. We never recite it but it's part of the history of the school," says Cavanagh. "So why would you come in and just erase it because it happens to have some religious words in the statement?"

The ACLU's Brown counters that the historical argument has no merit.

"At about the same time they were filing these briefs talking about its historical value they were actually taking down at the Bain Middle School a virtually identical prayer that had been on display a longer period of time," says Brown.

Attorneys for the Cranston school department have also questioned whether the student has standing in the case, whether she was sufficiently harmed from the mural to justify its challenge. They question her claim that the banner makes her feel ostracized. And her statements have been contradictory, says Cavanagh, adding that she seems more interested in making a statement.

"She has said repeatedly that the statement itself and the words do not offend her; but it's more the people who insist that it's the people who want the statement on the wall who offend her," says Cavanaugh. "And she has gone on to say that she doesn't believe that religion has a place in our society in general."

Brown calls this a "shameless argument."

"To blame the person who's raising a very legitimate constitutional claim and attempting to get the case thrown out," says Brown. "But again we don't think those arguments carry any weight at all."

The case will be heard Thursday by federal judge Ronald Lagueux. A ruling could take several weeks.

In matters of schools the U.S. Supreme Court usually rules against the display of religious objects. In 1980 the high court struck down a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom.

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