“When I saw the prayer in the school for the first time, it made me feel excluded, ostracized and devalued,” said Jessica Ahlquist, an atheist student at Cranston West High School in Cranston, Rhode Island.
Eight feet high and three feet wide, the prayer below was painted on the wall of Cranston West’s auditorium in 1963. Students can see it from anywhere in the room.
“ Our Heavenly Father,
“Grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and 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.
Complaints led the Cranston School Committee to consider removing the prayer, and Ahlquist testified against it at hearings in 2010 and 2011.
In March, the School Committee voted, four to three, to keep the prayer. Ahlquist and her father, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), challenged the prayer in U.S. District Court.
After Ahlquist filed the lawsuit, people threatened, bullied and intimidated her at school, on her way home from school, and on line.
The School Committee’s brief defended the prayer on the ground that it had been on the wall for a long time and therefore had historical value.
The ACLU’s brief pointed out that nothing in the display showed that its original religious purpose “had been dissipated or disavowed in favor of merely historical purpose.”
Indeed, the Committee’s chosen representative, Frank Lombardi, acknowledged that in a “vacuum,” the words “Our Heavenly Father” and “Prayer” conveyed a religious message.
He agreed that the Committee hearings “became quite a religious show,” and “quite a bit” of the sentiment was about “God and keeping God in the schools.”
At the Committee hearings, the four members who voted to keep the prayer offered religious explanations for their decisions.
Michael Traficante said the prayer expressed American religious principles.
Andrea Ianuzzi said “Cranston stands for a code of being and the morals that are expressed in that banner.”
Paula McFarland said she did not believe there was any “religious tone” to the display. She would support banners “that will enlighten anyone’s personal beliefs.”
When Frank Lombardi explained his vote, he avoided religious language. He described the prayer as “very innocuous, very historical”…“conveying a secular moral message.” However, at an earlier public hearing on the matter, Lombardi had said, “I cannot leave God at the doorstep.”
The ACLU’s asked that the judge order the School Committee to remove the prayer from public display at any public school building attended by Cranston students.
The case is Ahlquist v. Cranston. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Religious Right Legal Group, represents the School Committee.