Cranston High School Prayer Banner Banned
By now most are probably aware that a Rhode Island federal district court ordered Cranston High School to permanently remove a mural hanging in the gymnasium. The mural contained the “School Prayer,” which has hung there since the 1960s.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit against the high school was atheist student Jessica Ahlquist. Notably, she didn’t even notice the banner until someone pointed it out, and she later publicly stated she wasn’t offended by it, but it violated the Constitution. This was largely the premise of the defense: The plaintiff had no standing to sue because she wasn’t “injured” in any form, as required by law; she merely had a political disagreement.
The words at issue were apparently these:
Grant us each day the desire to do our best,
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically,
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others,
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win,
Teach us the value of true friendship,
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.
Patently offensive words, naturally. The text was prefaced by the titled “School Prayer,” as well as the first line “Our Heavenly Father,” and the closing “Amen.”
The prayer was apparently recited by students until 1962, when the US Supreme Court enjoined mandatory prayer in public school. The school’s first graduating class of 1963 presented the mural to the school, and it has been there ever since.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux said
no amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.
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.
Lagueux relied on the Lemon test, which analyzes a “governmental practice or legislative act.” It is difficult to see a mural hanging on the wall of a school gym as either.
The judge also repeatedly, and at length, detailed the hostility from the public the Plaintiff experienced. While notable in certain venues, it is unclear how that is remotely relevant to the government’s relationship to a school mural. To assert that the courts are answerable to, or necessarily influenced by, emotional charges and hostility from advocates on either side of the case may pervert the judicial system itself.
Given the somewhat unusual explanations in the judge’s ruling, it would be interesting to see the US Supreme Court hear this case. Whether it goes that far may be a function of the finances of the school district, however, rather than whether it is right or wrong.
With reference to the Religion Clause.