By 5:30 Thursday evening, as a light rain fell at Cranston High School East, dozens of people were already lined up at the front door. Just inside, police officers locked the crowd out while bomb dogs searched the auditorium. The driveway of the school was full, lined with police and fire vehicles on one side and news vans, both local and national, on the other.
The tension built as school prayer supporters tied “APPEAL” signs around their necks, and opponents held up posters calling Jessica Ahlquist, the 16-year-old plaintiff at the center of the case, a “true American hero.”
The stage was set, as a year and half of bitter debate promised to come to a close.
Five hours later, including more than two hours of testimony from nearly 50 Cranston residents, a decision had been rendered. In a 5-2 vote, the Cranston School Committee decided not to appeal Federal District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux’s ruling. The prayer mural at Cranston West must come down.
While all of the committee members touched upon the financial impact during their statements, the prevailing members said it was the crux of their decision.
“We don’t have half a million dollars,” said Paula McFarland. “I would much rather see us move on.”
Janice Ruggieri, who called the public’s reaction to the case “disheartening,” said she thought the whole thing could have been avoided, had the original complainant (an anonymous parent) approached the district before bringing in the ACLU.
McFarland and Ruggieri voted against the appeal, as did members Stephanie Culhane, Steven Bloom and Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi.
School Committee member Frank Lombardi, the first to make a motion for appeal, pointed out that it would cost the district nothing if they were successful.
“Nothing has changed my mind over the last few months, including Judge Lagueux’s decision,” he said.
Colleague Michael Traficante seconded the motion, and said the mural is “worth fighting for.”
“That banner is not about prayer,” he said. “It does not establish religion; it is symbolic.”
Joseph Cavanagh Jr., of Blish & Cavanagh, the district’s legal counsel, estimated it could cost upwards of $500,000 to appeal the decision, should the district prove unsuccessful. Already, the district is on the hook for $173,000 in legal fees for the ACLU. Ahlquist submitted a request for just $24 in damages.
Cavanagh agreed to represent Cranston schools pro bono again, but said he was skeptical that an appeal would change the outcome. Moreover, as a practicing Christian, he urged the audience not to see the loss as a stripping of religion from society.
“This case won’t solve that problem,” he said. “I believe spirituality plays a role in our lives, it plays a role in our culture … but in this case, the mural doesn’t represent prayer being taken away from these kids. These kids can still pray.”
Cavanagh, with support from the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, saw the situation as a display case. He argued that the mural has a secular purpose and is a historical artifact of the school.
Judge Lagueux saw things differently; in his ruling, he explained why he felt that the mural was distinctly Christian and therefore judged the merits of the case as an issue of school prayer.
“No amount of debate can make the school prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that,” he said in his decision.
Thursday’s public comment started just before 8 p.m., with a time limit set for 10 p.m. The Cranston School Committee decided to hear first from Cranston residents, and by the time two pages of Cranston speakers had approached the podium, time was up. Over those two hours, the speakers were split almost exactly in half, between those who supported an appeal and those who urged the committee to let Lagueux’s decision stand.
It was an interesting shift from earlier meetings. The ACLU first contacted the district to complain about the prayer mural in July of 2010. In the public hearings that followed throughout the fall, a vast majority of speakers were in support of the mural.
It wasn’t until April of 2011, when the ACLU filed their suit in federal court, that Ahlquist became linked to the case. The two sides made final arguments in October of 2011, with a decision coming down in January of this year. Since that decision, more Ahlquist supporters have come forward, with both sides well represented at public meetings.
In a Cranston Herald online poll that asked readers if they believed the district should appeal, nearly 2,000 people voted in the first week, with the results nearly split down the middle. When the link was posted to news aggregate site Reddit.com, under an atheist thread, the numbers exploded, with some 40,000 people from around the world casting votes against an appeal.
In Cranston, Kimberly Goldthwait said the district is too close to financial solvency to gamble on an appeal.
“We’re told by Mr. Nero that the light is there. The financial impact of an appeal will snuff out that light of hope,” she said. “Our schools and our children cannot afford to have any more funds taken away from them.”
Rev. Duane Clinker, pastor of the Open Table of Christ United Methodist Church, sympathized with prayer supporters, saying “it’s very hard when we feel our traditions are trampled upon,” but believes that endorsing a Christian prayer is dangerous territory.
“I don’t want City Hall to tell me or my congregation how to pray,” he said.
The other half of the auditorium, the more forceful presence in the room, pledged their political and financial support to the committee if they agreed to appeal.
“The principle is far too important to go unchallenged,” said Rep. Charlene Lima (D-Cranston). “To leave it unchallenged would only lead to a myriad of other unjustified attacks on our Constitution. It is the only thing to do.”
Wearing a T-shirt with Jesus Christ emblazoned across it, West student Christian Frangos attended the meeting to support an appeal.
“Our rights are being broken. I believe we should leave it as it is,” he said. “I would feel ashamed if it was taken down.”
Frangos’ classmate, David Sears Jr., said that despite the anger expressed in the community at large, West has not been torn apart by this case.
“I was so proud when I saw all these kids band together,” said Sears, who has covered the story for the school’s official newspaper, The West Wind.
The vitriol that has spewed forth from this debate, with threats made against Ahlquist and speakers heckled for their positions, was also at the center of remarks for many speakers.
“The way the world will view Cranston is up to you,” warned Superintendent Peter Nero during his opening remarks.
David O’Connell, a practicing Catholic from East Providence, brought with him a sign that said, “God Bless Jessica.”
“I hope God will bless Jessica someday with faith,” he said, “but if she wants to believe in no God, and express it, she should be able to. That’s just fair.”
The fate of the mural remains unclear after Thursday’s decision. Several groups have stepped forward with offers to help pay for its safe removal, and area churches are already vying to host the prayer.