None of the 29 students in David Flanagan’s sophomore honors U.S. history class at Bishop Hendricken High School agrees with Judge Ronald Lagueux’s decision to remove the Cranston West prayer banner.
“I’m not surprised,” said Robert Craven, Esq., who visited the class on Friday for Rhode Island Law Day. Craven and Judge Karen Lynch Bernard of Rhode Island Family Court stopped into the class to discuss First Amendment rights, like freedom of speech and religion. Craven and Bernard were among 50 teams of judges and lawyers that visited upper and middle school students across the state Friday to discuss what has quickly become a hot-button issue.
Flaherty’s class had previously discussed the Cranston West prayer banner issue, and Craven and Bernard brought up the topic again last week.
“She didn’t know it was there until the end of her sophomore year,” said sophomore Patrick Gower of Jessica Ahlquist, who made the complaint about the banner. Others argued that she only visited the auditorium twice a year, so it wouldn’t affect her daily life.
“The person who wrote the prayer had the freedom to do that,” said student Patrick McDonald. “Why is her going to court not a violation of his rights?”
Craven explained that justice is a system of balances.
“Lawyers advocate their client’s position and their client’s position only,” said Craven. “They’re not there to do justice.”
He explained that the jury and the judge are there to be the deciding factors.
“If both lawyers do their jobs with complete effectiveness, then justice happens,” he said. “Sometimes I disagree with [rulings] as a lawyer but that’s the way we do justice.”
He said the court is never meant to be offensive with their rulings, but sometimes, inadvertently, they are.
“Since [the banner] only offended one person, how did it appease the majority?” asked Gower.
Craven said law isn’t meant to please everyone.
“Law is repugnant to what the masses want,” said Craven. “Everyone has rights, even if they’re unpopular.”
Bernard challenged the students with a question: “Does it make a difference that only one person complained? Who is right? Who is wrong?”
Craven and Bernard recounted the events of the 1983 Lynch versus Donnelly case in Pawtucket, where a group complained that the city’s holiday display, which included a nativity scene, was unconstitutional. Ultimately, the courts ruled the display was constitutional because it represented many religions. Judge Lagueux’s decision on the banner boiled down to the presence of one word: “God.”
“What’s more offensive: the word ‘God’ or taking it down?” asked Matthew Haronian. “Whose rights are more valid?”
“That’s the million dollar question,” said Bernard. “There is always somebody that’s not going to be happy.”
Bernard said the battles over separation between church and state have gotten “ugly and diabolical.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” she said.
Patrick McDonald said it seems to him that cases regarding the separation of church and state are becoming more frequent in the wake of the prayer banner dispute.
“More and more of them seem to be popping up,” he said. “It seems like the atheists are trying to bully anyone that says what they don’t believe.”
In the months following the Cranston West prayer banner controversy, there have been similar skirmishes over religion and government. There was a small firestorm at Pilgrim when a student-painted mural depicted a man and woman with wedding bands above their heads. And just last week hundreds gathered in Woonsocket to rally in favor of the war memorial topped with a cross.
Craven asked why these First Amendment rights are so important and why they draw so much media attention. He gave a brief lesson in history.
“Imagine it’s 1769 … and just a regular group of people in Pennsylvania get together,” he said. “And Thomas Jefferson, who has the best penmanship, writes out what the Constitution should be.”
He reminded the students that the founding fathers established freedom of speech and religion because of the previous oppression they felt under the rule of Britain. Today, it’s the justice system’s job to translate and apply those boundaries to society more than 200 years later.
“If they were all here now, what would they tell us?” asked Craven about the founding fathers.
Bernard said not prohibiting something simply because people may find it offensive is the bedrock of the First Amendment.
Still, the students’ opinions on the banner case remained unchanged.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘I don’t think [Ahlquist] complained when she used the money that said, ‘In God We Trust’ on it,’” said Brendan Smith.
Craven said although the opinions of the Hendricken students didn’t take him by surprise, he was happy to reiterate the history behind the Constitution, and where our First Amendment rights stem from.
After a question and answer session, the class drew to a close, but not before Bernard and Craven’s closing remarks were interrupted by an announcement over the loud speaker: “Please join in the school prayer,” said the voice.