Cranston, Rhode Island Prayer Banner Removal sparks Religious Meltdown

Following up on a local issue here in Rhode Island that has begun to mushroom into a full fledged First Amendment battle, we return to the issue of the prayer banner that has been ignobly displayed in Cranston West High School since 1958. I first covered the story here. In the interest of full disclosure, I am proud to report that Jessica Ahlquist, who has started a facebook page to help win support for the banner's removal, is my niece.

The Providence Journal covered a meeting that took place on November 30th in which officials tried to decide what to do about the offending banner. True to the spirit and nature of local Rhode Island governance, a final decision was put off:
In the end, after 1½ hours of heated discussion Tuesday, a School Committee working group charged in August to research what the School District ought to do about a prayer plaque at Cranston High School West that calls on “Our Heavenly Father” to guide students voted to research the issue further.
In the end, district officials said, money –– and the law –– will dictate what the district will do. The district owes the city more than $6 million.
“We are not in any position to take on more debt, no matter how righteous the cause is,” said School Committee member Stephanie A. Culhane, who described herself as a devout Catholic who teaches catechism.
One wonders what kind of debt Stephanie Culhane is going on about, since the problem could be solved with two swaths of paint, but what she's referring to is the cost of either battling the ACLU to try and keep the offending material in place, or fighting a group of concerned religious zealots who have threatened to sue if the prayer is removed.
“If the banner is removed, we will sue,” said Christopher Young, a well-known face on the Rhode Island campaign circuit who last ran for mayor in Providence. He said 100 Cranston West students and parents had signed a petition to keep the prayer as is. “So the city will pay no matter what.”

Addressing directly the two Cranston West students on the committee –– junior Eric Borrelli and sophomore Taylor Grenga –– Young said what the committee was really doing was discussing whether to remove God from everything.
You might remember Christopher Young, who in his bid for Mayor of Providence made a complete jackass of himself:
Young was escorted out of the event by the police after he refused to take down a large statue of the Virgin Mary that he had placed on the candidates’ table.
Doris De Los Santos, president of the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund, which sponsored the forum, said candidates were told not to bring props or signs to the debate stage. Young argued it was a question of free speech: “The statue stands for my faith. I believe I have a right to be here with my faith.”
As debate organizers and 10 police officers asked Young to leave the stage or remove the statue, about 200 registered attendees waited in the humid hallway outside the auditorium.
“To have one person put a damper on an important political process is selfish,” said Michael Van Leesten, one of a handful people in the auditorium to watch the debacle unfold.
I find it interesting but unsurprising that Young would call upon First Amendment rights at the Mayoral debate but not grant the same protections to the students at Cranston West. After all, the same Amendment that protects free speech also protects people from state sponsored religion. So let's go back to what Young said:
Young said what the committee was really doing was discussing whether to remove God from everything.
No Chris, not everything, just the walls of public High Schools. Jessica Ahlquist summed it up nicely:
Students have the right to practice religion.
School Superintendent Peter L. Nero, a practicing Catholic, seemed to agree:
If people want to express themselves religiously, I would advise them to go to church. I see a lot of empty pews next to me.
Not reported in the article was how heated the meeting became. Jessica and the other students protesting the banner were grossly outnumbered by the Crowd Chris Young brought with him. They found themselves in a corner, being bodily protected by three police oficers from the crowd, one of whom insisted on handing her a note. The note directed them to a website called Silent Scream, for reasons no one could understand, because this issue has nothing to do with abortion, except perhaps in the mind of some hopelessly confused person.

Jessica heard a woman hiss "witch" at her as she was attempting to speak, and other insults were hurled her way as well.

In the end, the words of reason and tolerance, though buffeted and bruised by the bellicose voice of the ignorant, hypocritical and foolish, rose above the din and were bravely spoken by a high school sophomore who needs your support to fight the good fight. Check out the video below:

There's a brief bit in the clip depicting a priest talking about how Seperation of Church and State does not mean what we all think it does, and if I'm not mistaken, the man speaking is the Reverend Roman R. Manchester,a Chaplain at Our Lady of Fatima in North Providence, and well known Tea Party activist. He's also a ProJo letter hack, speaking on such topics as the dangers of vaccines, the "sexual molestation" people undergo at airport security, and, of course, abortion. (see above for the note my niece received during all this inane brouhaha.

As can be seen by the players in opposition to removing the sign, the entire "controversy" is being generated by a very few religious zealots who are organized and politicized. The woman in red speaking out in favor of the banner is Chris Young's fiance, Kara Russo, who famously ran for Congress and Lt. Governor, and who Chris Young famously proposed to during the closing remarks of yet another mayoral debate.

For good measure, here's Chris Young being dragged out of the debate. The question from the reporter at 1:10 in the video is spot on. "When people see you with the statue... and they think to themselves, I'm not going to vote for this guy because he's not well. How do you respond?"

Against this array of publicity seekers and religious opportunists and hucksters are people like my niece, Jessica Ahlquist, who is simply proposing that we live in our country according to the principles clearly outlined in the Constitution. She did not set out to cause a controversy, she's just a bright honors student who thought she could correct a minor wrong.

Unfortunately, she stirred a hornet's nest of ignorance in doing so.

Fortunately, she's not going to back down.

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Comment by Steve Ahlquist on December 2, 2010 at 9:42pm
I am in communication with Jessica, she is my niece.
Comment by Earther on December 2, 2010 at 8:55pm
When did you hear about this?

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