November 23, 2014
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Council of Churches leader supports removal of prayer banner

Throughout the entirety of the Cranston West prayer banner debate, those of the Christian faith have been painted as the majority of those in opposition to Jessica Ahlquist, the ACLU and Judge Ronald Lagueux’s decision.

But not all Christians are in disagreement with the order to remove the prayer banner from the school.

Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, issued a statement in support of the ACLU suit and Judge Laqueux’s decision.

“An official school prayer, no matter how well intentioned, is inconsistent with the spirit of Rhode Island and the United States Constitution,” he said in a statement. “Any prayer adopted by a government agency crosses the line to state sponsored religion.”

Anderson was a student at Cranston West when it was a combined middle and high school in the early ’60s.

“I was there when all of this went up,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “The school was new, so we had to decide on things like a school mascot, and in those days, schools in Cranston had school prayers.”

Anderson said the prayer was written for Cranston West with the intention of being “more inclusive.”

“It wasn’t a Roman Catholic prayer,” he explained.

Now, he said, no prayer can be inclusive enough.

“I’m supportive of the ACLU’s suit, and supportive of the judge’s ruling,” he said.

Anderson said that people have been surprised to learn he is in support of the case, and the verdict.

“I think that people are surprised because they assume since it’s something religious, any religious people would be in favor [of keeping the banner],” he said.

Despite the shock of some, Anderson said reactions to his public statements of support have been mostly positive. However, he has received some negative backlash, including a demand that he retract his statement.

Ron L’Heureux, a North Providence man and devout Christian, sent Anderson a letter “respectfully requesting” he withdraw his statement.

“I know him personally,” said L’Heureux of Anderson, who said in his letter that he is “distressed” that Anderson does “not know the Christian history of our country.”

A history that L’Heureux says is rooted in Christianity and Bible study. He said the separation from church and state grew from colonial ideology to not endorse one form of Christianity over another.

Now he says it’s a “gross misinterpretation of the law.”

“You cannot find the separation of church and state in any statutory law,” he said. “The government was never supposed to sponsor one form of Christianity over another. They weren’t supposed to sponsor any religion. It was never meant to be a doctrine of the court.”

Anderson agrees with the history of religious tolerance and acceptance.

“Rhode Island was the only one of the original thirteen colonies that was specifically established for the purpose of welcoming all faith traditions,” he said in a statement.

But for him, the issue is still about eliminating a school-endorsed prayer from a public institution.

“This is not the time to be defending a prayer on the walls of the Cranston West auditorium. This is the time to work together to enhance Rhode Island’s rich tradition of religious diversity and a climate where all religious traditions are welcome,” he said in a statement.

L’Heureux, who said he is a religious leader at New Life Worship Center in Smithfield, said he wrote to Anderson because he was upset with Anderson’s stance.

L’Heureux said he doesn’t understand how a man of God can support a decision that’s “basically perpetrating fraud against the whole country.”

Anderson said he will not retract his statement, and issued another public statement in response to L’Heureux’s request.

“In good conscience, I cannot possibly withdraw my statement,” said Anderson in a response. “I am very concerned about the turn this debate has taken.”

Anderson said he understands that religion is a very important part of American life, and doesn’t wish to diminish that through his support of the suit.

L’Heureux is hopeful that Cranston will file a “motion to vacate” the ruling.

“I don’t think they have to appeal,” he said. “There were arguments that could have been made that never were.”

In addition to being sure the banner will return; L’Heureux is confident that Anderson will retract his support.

“I’m sure he’ll do the right thing,” he said.

But Anderson is holding his ground, even saying that Cranston should “absolutely not” appeal the judge’s decision.

Although he said he understands why “people of good will” would want to fight the ruling, he ultimately doesn’t think that the city should spend money on an additional suit. He feels that the judge’s decision will be ultimately upheld.


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