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ACLU files suit challenging prayer banner

CRANSTON, R.I. -- A federal lawsuit filed by the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union against the city of Cranston challenges the constitutionality of a prayer banner displayed since 1963 in the auditorium of Cranston West High School.

The suit was filed on behalf of Jessica Ahlquist, a sophomore at the school.

After receiving several calls, the ACLU asked school officials last July to remove the 8-by-3-foot banner in an effort to avoid the need for costly litigation. On March 7, by a vote of 4-3, the Cranston school committee voted to allow the banner. The lawsuit was filed April 4.

Providence attorney Joseph V. Cavanagh Jr. and lawyers for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, based in Washington, will represent the school district.

"I am involved because I believe that the First Amendment right of free expression should be protected," Cavanagh said. "The statement in question represents the heritage and beliefs of a student in the early days in the high school which has been and should be freely preserved in a nonthreatening manner. While debate on these issues is welcome, we hope that common sense will rule the day."

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The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty states on its Web page that it is "a nonprofit, public interest legal and educational institute that protects the free expression of all faiths."

In a recent column in the Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper of the Providence Diocese, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin said that he hoped "the banner battle doesn't travel too far down the litigation trail."

"No one really wants that, and in fact we certainly have bigger fish to fry in our communities these days," the bishop wrote in his "Without a Doubt" column. "But if indeed the banner is removed someday, I hope that the good folks in Cranston will keep on praying.

"After all, the word of God is written on your hearts, not on a banner; and it's the Holy Spirit who helps you to pray. That's something no one can take away from you, even as you walk the halls of a public school," he said.

According to David Bradley, who wrote the prayer in 1960 as an assignment given to the student council, said the words were written to "be meaningful to students of all religions." The prayer replaced the Lord's Prayer and was recited every morning over the intercom together with the Pledge of Allegiance during opening exercises.

The prayer invokes "Our heavenly Father" to help the students do their best, grow intellectually and morally, to be honest and good sports, and to know the value of true friendship.

"It was the furthest thing from my mind to create a prayer that would impose any particular religious denomination or belief on anyone," said Bradley, now a resident of Stonington, Conn.

Bradley is amazed that the prayer banner has become a divisive issue. He noted that the prayer's intention was to "contribute to the legacy of the school" and to inspire students to bring credit to Cranston West High School by exhibiting good conduct at all times.

"It's a model for good behavior," he continued. "I couldn't believe it when I heard there was a controversy."

The Rev. Donald Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, believes the prayer banner is inappropriate for a public school. He agrees with the ALCU and believes it should be removed.

The Baptist minister, a 1966 graduate of Cranston West, said that "an official school prayer, no matter how well-intentioned, is inconsistent with the spirit of Rhode Island and the United States Constitution" and that any prayer adopted by a government agency "crosses the line to state sponsored religion."

Rev. Anderson noted the prayer banner has historical significance and should become part of the city's historical archives.

ACLU attorney Lynette Labinger, who is representing Ahlquist, wrote on the organization's website: "It is always difficult to be the one person who steps forward to challenge an exclusionary practice or message and face the majority response -- your objection is 'ruining it for the rest of us.'"

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