CRANSTON, Rhode Island (Reuters) - A Rhode Island school board voted on Thursday to comply with a federal court order to remove a prayer banner that has been displayed in a public high school for nearly a half century, saying the cash-strapped district cannot face a costly appeal.
A federal judge ordered the controversial banner, which addresses “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen,” removed last month in response to a lawsuit by a high school junior and atheist who said its religious language made her feel excluded.
But the lawsuit by Jessica Ahlquist stirred strong feelings in the city of Cranston, where some residents saw the effort to remove the 8-foot high by 4-foot wide banner, on display since 1963 in the school auditorium, as a slap at tradition and an assault on religion.
“I’m pleased with the vote,” said Ahlquist, guarded by one of the police officers who ringed the packed school board meeting after scouring the space with bomb-sniffing dogs. “Obviously it was the right decision to make.”
The board voted 5-2 against filing an appeal, a move that means the school must now remove the banner within 10 days under the court order, a board member said.
“The ACLU is going to win solely because of the fiscal condition of Cranston,” school board chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi told a crowd of 500 people, as some cheered and others booed the vote to comply with the order to remove the banner at Cranston High School West based on a mandate of separation of church and state.
Tempers flared during the four-hour debate leading up to the vote over a lawsuit that has already cost the city close to $200,000, and a city attorney warned that an appeal could more than double costs.
City attorney Joseph Cavanagh appealed for calm, urging parents to remember painful school budget cuts and consider the best use of their shrinking resources. Still, some in the crowd could barely contain their anger.
“What’s happening now is an attack on any type of religion,” said Ron Valiquette, of Lincoln, R.I. “This is about more to us than one atheist objecting when there is something on the wall that doesn’t pertain to her.”
Ahlquist, who was raised a Catholic but became an atheist at around age 10, said a friend first pointed out the banner during her freshman year, and she experienced feelings of exclusion and ostracism because of the prayer.
The prayer banner, currently under a wooden cover, reads: “Our Heavenly Father, 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.”
It continues: “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. Amen.”
Kate Katzberg, a mother with two children in Cranston schools who was at the meeting, said the banner needed to come down.
“Religion has no place in public schools,” Katzberg said. “The banner is a beautiful object but it expresses a concept that we cannot all agree on.”
Also favoring the removal was Daniel McCarthy, an Irish Catholic who told the crowd he supported Ahlquist because his father fought religious persecution from Protestants years ago.
“I don’t want my tax dollars spent in any school district that promotes one religion over another,” McCarthy said.
Rhode Island is among the most Catholic states in the nation. Some 43 percent of adults in the two states of Connecticut and Rhode Island identified with Catholic traditions compared with 24 percent nationwide, according to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published in 2008.
The emotional battle over the prayer banner and separation of church and state is one of a host of so-called “culture war” issues gaining attention during an election year.
They range from the clash of President Barack Obama’s administration with the Catholic church on birth control to the uproar over a breast cancer foundation cancelling funding to Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions, and approval of same-sex marriage by several state legislatures.
Additional reporting By Lauren Keiper; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Greg McCune and Cynthia Johnston