A federal judge this week ordered the immediate removal of a large prayer mural addressed to “Our Heavenly Father” in the auditorium of a Rhode Island high school.
Senior U.S. District Judge Ronald R. Lagueux of Providence said the mural, put up in 1963 at Cranston High School West, is an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.
“No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that,” Judge Lagueux said in his Jan. 11 opinion in Ahlquist v. City of Cranston.
The mural 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, 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.
The mural was challenged by Jessica Ahlquist, a self-described atheist and a junior at the high school, who has said she was offended by the mural and believed it was unconstitutional.
Ahlquist’s complaints, and threatened legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, prompted a debate in the community, with the Cranston School Committee voting in 2010 to retain the mural, calling it an historical artifact of the school and a secular expression of morals.
Judge Lagueux said that “no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction. The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular.”
The judge noted that at four public school committee meetings to consider the mural, community members spoke passionately about their religious convictions as their reason for supporting the mural.
“The School Committee endorsed the position of those who believe that it is acceptable to use Christian prayer to instill values in public schoolchildren; a decision that clearly placed the ‘nonadherents’ outside of the political community,” the judge said.
Judge Lagueux offered some thoughts to “soothe those who may believe that this decision represents a harsh result over a minor Constitutional infraction.”
He quoted Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, on religious tolerance, and cited the Supreme Court’s language in the 1963 school prayer decision in Abington School District v. Schempp.
“The Supreme Court urges us to remember that ‘insistence upon neutrality, vital as it surely is for untrammeled religious liberty, may appear to border upon religious hostility,” the judge said, quoting from Schempp. “‘But in the long view the independence of both church and state in their respective spheres will be better served by close adherence to the neutrality principle.’”
The Associated Press said in a Thursday story the Cranston School Committee plans to discuss the decision at its school board meeting on Tuesday.
Photo: A prayer banner is seen on the wall of an auditorium at Cranston High School West, in Cranston, R.I., in 2011. (Steven Senne/AP)
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.