Religious Liberty, Rhode Island Public School

The attack on liberty and religious liberty, in particular, has not stopped with the Obama Administration forcing religious organizations to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees. During this past Christmas, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee delivered a speech at the Statehouse where he lighted what he called a “holiday tree.” But perhaps the most interesting story comes from Cranston, Rhode Island, where a 16-year old atheist student, Jessica Ahlquist, won a lawsuit to get a prayer removed from the wall of her high school auditorium, where it has hung for 49 years.

Last month, a federal judge decided the prayer’s presence at Cranston West High School was unconstitutional. The city of Cranston will be holding a public hearing next week where officials will decide on whether or not to fight the court order to take down the prayer. The prayer has temporarily been covered with a black sheet.

The people of Cranston, I believe, have inaccurately chosen the reasons for which this court ruling must be fought. They have claimed the prayer is “an important piece of the school’s history.” They have said, “It reflects secular values we hold dear.” Committeeman Frank Lombardi, who voted to keep the prayer up, has said the banner is “traditional and secular in nature.” No, the prayer, which starts “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen,” is not somehow secular and it also does not need to be changed. The court order must be fought because it is simply not unconstitutional.

Our Founders, of course, wrote and passed the First Amendment limiting Congress “to make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, Judge Ronald Lagueux ruled that the banner was unconstitutional because it “violates the guiding principle of government neutrality in religion.” The words of the First Amendment are simple, and it does not enforce government neutrality in religion, but only rejects the establishment of a national religion. A theocracy is not established in the United States if a public school in Rhode Island hangs a banner with a prayer on it.

Further, a theocracy is not established if public schools allow their students to pray or participate in Christmas or Easter assemblies. A national religion is not established if some districts transport parochial students to their religious schools as part of bus route; or if communities want a manager scene on grounds of their town hall or the Ten Commandments at the courthouse.

In 1985, Chief Justice William Rehnquist explained how “the [First Amendment] Establishment Clause does not require government neutrality between religion and irreligion nor did it prohibit the Federal Government from providing nondiscriminatory aid to religion. There is simply no historical foundation for the proposition that the Framers intended to build a wall of separation.”

The people of Cranston should ask themselves: Does the prayer banner require an individual to change her religious affiliation or even accept God’s existence? Are students required to worship against her beliefs? The answer, of course, is no. But the student Jessica Ahlquist, who filed the lawsuit, has said how uncomfortable the banner makes her feel. So what? I’m uncomfortable with how the government spends tax dollars all the time, but this does not automatically make it unconstitutional.

If the Constitution should prevail, the school banner will remain in the auditorium of Cranston West High School. The students of Cranston West should be allowed to conduct themselves as they wish and express their religious beliefs without justices dictating from the bench which behavior is acceptable respecting religion. We need fewer justices making up new, unjustified readings of the Constitution; this practice has a long history beginning with racist Democrat and Ku Klux Klan member, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who ruled in a majority decision that “no tax in any amount can be levied to support any religious activities [because] the First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable.” 

I encourage the people of Cranston not to accept these lies or abandon the Constitution and the vision of the Founders. Teach the children of Cranston West about our great history as the most religious and tolerant people in the world. Or, renounce the founding documents and accept the court orders of acceptable behavior. University of Dallas professor Thomas West has rightfully identified how “The Supreme Court will allow the theology of the Declaration to be taught in the classroom as long as it is understood that it belongs to a world that is dead and gone.” His Excellency, President George Washington, warned us in his Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible results.” The Founders risked their lives, their fortunes and their honor so that we can have religious liberty. We should start acting more like it.

–David Rufful