Prayer Banner in RI School Must Be Torn Down: Federal Judge

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on January 17, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal judge has stepped in on behalf of teen Jessica Ahlquist, ordering the removal of a prayer banner displayed at Rhode Island's Cranston High School West.

The eight-foot by four-foot mural urges students to be honest and kind, and to embrace friendship and sportsmanship. It also begins with the words "Our Heavenly Father" and closes with "Amen."

As an atheist, Ahlquist felt ostracized by its presence.

Lawyers from Cranston High argued that the prayer is merely historical, as it dates back to 1963. But as the judge explains, "no amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that."

He thus determined that the banner violates the Establishment Clause's prohibition of state-sponsored prayer. In making this decision, the judge relied on a number of prominent Supreme Court cases.

The Supreme Court first considered school prayer in the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale. It found it unconstitutional to impose prayer in public schools. Twenty-five years later in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Court wrote that parents trust public schools to ensure that the "classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views."

And in 2005's Van Orden v. Perry, the Supreme Court reiterated that the "impressionability of the young" requires the government to "exercise particular care in separating church and state."

Even if Cranston High didn't force Jessica Ahlquist to read the prayer banner, its presence advances Christian views in a space filled with impressionable young minds. It therefore violates the Establishment Clause.

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