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Excerpts from the Court’s Ruling in Ahlquist v. City of Cranston

Posted: January 12, 2012|Category: Church and State

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On Jessica’s standing to bring the lawsuit: “Like the student in Lee v. Weisman [the RI ACLU’s successful lawsuit against public school graduation prayers], she is a captive audience. Beyond that, Plaintiff has stated that the presence of a Christian prayer on the wall of her school has made her feel ostracized and out of place. She has also stated that she doesn’t find the text of the Prayer to be offensive. The Court fails to find these statements inconsistent. It is possible to object to the presence of the Prayer Mural without having to find its goals of academic achievement and good sportsmanship offensive. While her injuries might be characterized as abstract, those injuries are consistent with the injuries complained of by other plaintiffs in Establishment Clause litigation.”

On the merits of the case: “No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that. Its opening, calling upon the ‘Heavenly Father,’ is an exclusively Christian formulation of a monotheistic deity, leaving out, inter alia, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists alike. The Prayer concludes with the indisputably religious closing: ‘Amen;’ a Hebrew word used by Jews, Christians and Muslims to conclude prayers. In between, the Prayer espouses values of honesty, kindness, friendship and sportsmanship. While these goals are commendable, the reliance on God’s intervention as the way to achieve those goals is not consistent with a secular purpose.”

“While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction. The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular.”

“The Prayer Mural espouses important moral values, yet it does so in the context of religious supplication. The retention of the Prayer Mural is no doubt a nod to Cranston West’s tradition and history, yet that nod reflects the nostalgia felt by some members of the community who remember fondly when the community was sufficiently homogeneous that the religion of its majority could be practiced in public schools with impunity.”

“When the Prayer Mural was hung in 1963, a reasonable observer would no doubt have concluded that Cranston West endorsed its message, and approved its installation in a place of prominence in the new auditorium. While the Prayer was authored by a student, and the Mural was paid for by a group of graduates, the School would never have permitted the exhibition of a message of which it did not approve. During the forty-five-plus years that the Prayer Mural has hung in the auditorium, an observer would probably have been puzzled by the Prayer Mural. Clearly it is ‘old-looking’ as Committee member Lombardi observed, and yet it is still maintained and located in a place of honor to the right of the stage, next to the clock. However, if that puzzled observer had sat in on the March 7, 2011, School Committee meeting, his or her confusion would have ended. At that meeting, the School Committee endorsed the position of those who believe that it is acceptable to use Christian prayer to instill values in public schoolchildren; a decision that clearly placed the ‘nonadherents’ outside of the political community.”

“It remains for this Court to attempt to soothe those who may believe that this decision represents a harsh result over a minor Constitutional infraction. The Supreme Court offers two pertinent lessons. First, the Supreme Court urges us to remember that ‘insistence upon neutrality, vital as it surely is for untrammeled religious liberty, may appear to border upon religious hostility. But in the long view the independence of both church and state in their respective spheres will be better served by close adherence to the neutrality principle.’ Second [the Supreme Court has addressed] where, as here, the complaints of a few overcame the beliefs and desires of the majority: ‘Nor did it matter that few children had complained of the practice, for the measure of the seriousness of a breach of the Establishment Clause has never been thought to be the number of people who complain of it.’ Plaintiff is clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community.”

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