(Reuters) - A federal judge has ordered the immediate removal of a Christian prayer mural displayed in the auditorium of a Rhode Island high school, saying it violated a U.S. constitutional ban on state-sponsored prayer in public schools.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux rejected the school's claims that the message in the mural - which opens with "Our Heavenly Father" and closes with "Amen" - was purely secular.
"No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that," Lagueux wrote in a 40-page opinion.
Jessica Ahlquist, a student at Cranston High School West, sued the city of Cranston and its school committee in April 2011 to remove the banner, which dates back to 1963.
As an atheist, Ahlquist said the mural made her feel excluded and ostracized. She accused the school of violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution's First Amendment, which prevents the government from promoting one religion over another.
School officials responded that the banner was a historical memento of the school's founding days and did not serve any religious purpose. The prayer encourages values of honesty, kindness, friendship and sportsmanship.
Joseph Cavanagh, a lawyer for the city and school officials, said they were analyzing the opinion to determine whether to file an appeal.
"We were hoping this banner would be viewed as a neutral, secular, historic display," Cavanagh said. The mural, donated by the class of 1963, had evolved historically in the community and never had a religious purpose, he said.
The court relied on a 2005 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court called for particular care in separating church and state in public schools. In that case, the high court ruled that a monument displaying the Ten Commandments was acceptable on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol.
But the court added that the same monument on the grounds of a public school would be impermissible, "given the impressionability of the young."
Lynette Labinger, a volunteer lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who represented Ahlquist, praised the judge for recognizing that Supreme Court precedent.
"Placement of a public government display of a religious message in a place with impressionable young students has not been upheld," she said.
Reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh