Hearing Held in Cranston Prayer Banner Case
The hearing over the contentious “prayer banner” case in Cranston, Rhode Island took place today at the federal courthouse in Providence.
The Honorable Ronald Rene Lagueux of United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island heard arguments from the counsel for plaintiff Jessica Ahlquist, a junior at Cranston High School West who filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year over the presence of a banner embroidered with a Christian prayer (left).
The banner, a gift from the school’s class of 1963, hangs in the auditorium where students congregate for school-sponsored activities. Ahlquist, an atheist, filed a motion for a judgment against the school district on the grounds that the banner violates the establishment clause of the Constitution – a mandate to keep church and state separate. She is seeking a judicial order that the banner be removed. School officials counter that the banner is a part of community tradition and a secular – not a religious – item.
Plaintiff’s attorney Lynette Labinger presented arguments first, including a dossier of some 38 exhibits for judicial review. Labinger’s argument focused on the purpose of the banner and its history in the school. “The banner is not a piece of art,” she maintained, adding that “the case law is clear: this [banner] is a violation of the establishment clause.” She cited Stone vs.Graham and The Freedom From Religion Foundation vs. Hanover as precedent setting cases.
Anticipating an attempt by the defense to paint Ahlquist as an attention-seeker or “professional litigator” and thus discredit her legal standing, Labinger pointed to the bullying, harassment, and threats that Ahlquist has received since this case attracted national attention. Exhibits including Facebook conversations, interviews, and Ahlquist’s deposition were provided to document the bullying and harassment. Though Ahlquist may be “a rock star” among atheists, said Labinger, “in her own home and state she’s been alienated and attacked.”
In her summary remarks, Labinger asked Lagueux to review a videotape of the Cranston High School Committee’s March 2011 meeting to respond to the initial complaint, to confirm that the school had “re-endorsed” the religious message of the banner. (The committee vote was 4 to 3 in favor of retaining the banner, including one who declared the school should “fight the good fight.” Several school committee members were present at the hearing but declined to comment.)
After a brief recess, defense counsel Joseph Cavanagh, Jr. spoke on behalf of the school district. “This case is about whether there is a secular purpose for the banner,” he began, and continued with an emotional appeal to the nostalgia of the 1950s – the era of “apple pie,” he explained. “We used to pray in school every morning, that’s the way we used to do it.” The banner, he argued, represented not a religious message but a manifesto for “universal values” such as loyalty, cooperation, and fairness. “There are many, many references to religion in American culture because it’s part of our history…[The banner] was given to honor traditions. But it never had a religious purpose.”
At one point, Judge Lagueux interrupted Cavanagh’s remarks to ask: “What if it had been written to the Great Buddha?” “Well, if that’s what the school had decided and established…if the school had grown up around it, that would be fine,” Cavanagh answered.
While the defense did make the predicted attempt to invalidate Ahlquist’s standing – mainly citing what they contended were contradictory remarks she made regarding her disposition toward then banner – the defense rested its case on the stance that the banner was a historical, secular artifact. “If we rip it out – it’s hostility toward religion,” Cavanagh concluded. “Where does it stop? We don’t believe the Constitution requires us to erase history.”
Judge Lagueux will review the presentations of both counsels and render a judgment sometime in the next few weeks.
I’ll offer just one editorial comment here. There’s an old saying in legal practice: “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. When neither the law nor the facts are on your side, pound the table.” Defense counsel Cavanagh did a lot of table pounding today, evoking the false memory of a bygone time when – evidently – everyone was a Christian and things were somehow simpler (through conformity? One wonders).
It may have been typical to pray in public schools at some point in our nation’s history, but during that same era it was likewise customary to segregate schools, buses, and restaurants. Regarding segregation, most of us would likely say “We know better now.” How can it be that unconstitutional and discriminatory religious beliefs – publicly endorsed – are any different? We really ought to know better by now.
A Bright Blog was on hand to record some of the day’s events, though electronic devices were strictly prohibited from the courtroom itself. Jessica was kind enough – again! – to speak to me and offer her thoughts on the proceedings.