In a meeting that included police escorts, a resident hurling dollar bills towards the Dias, loud cheers and some boos, the Cranston School Committee on Tuesday heard from a crowd of nearly 250 residents demanding they appeal a court ruling ordering the prayer banner at Cranston High School West come down.
Although the highlight of the night’s agenda was , the auditorium at Western Hills Middle School was packed in the first School Committee meeting since and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, ordering the banner removed.
Many wore signs that stated “APPEAL – or vote them out!” The vast majority in attendance were there to call for an appeal and decry the court decision, though several speakers did urge the committee not to appeal and said it would be a lost cause, including Ahlquist herself, who was led in and out of the auditorium by an entourage of Cranston Police officers.
Before the meeting started, the crowd broke out into song, at first by singing God Bless America and eventually drifting into Christian hymns — perhaps a reflection of what
Patrick McAssey, student council president, began the public comment by stating he believes the prayer is “not in fact a Christian prayer,” bur rather a “positive statement that reaches all walks of life.”
McAssey said “Heavenly Father,” and “Amen,” which is how the prayer begins and ends, could relate to many religions, not just Christianity. That’s why he believes the banner should stay.
“Despite all the unwanted attention brought to this school, we should appeal this case,” McAssey said. “If we’re going to go down, let’s go down fighting.”
Resident Lisa French declared the judge’s decision “an unconstitutional ruling” and warned the committee that a precedent is being set.
“How should a small minority be able to decide what should stand and what should not stand? I don’t know what kind of math you’re using but when I went to school, two is greater than one.”
French reiterated a frequently-made point during the meeting, that many believe since “separation of church and state” does not explicitly, word for word, appear in the constitution, there is no reason why the government can’t sponsor prayer and religion. And she warned that the entire committee would be voted out if they didn’t choose to appeal.
“If you don’t defend the banner, you will not be reelected,” French shouted. “Any of you!”
Taylor Grenga, a junior at Cranston West, said she thinks that although the banner contains “a good moral message,” that is not a reason to keep it because the school already has a school creed hanging in the auditorium.
Grenga was booed by some members of the audience, which prompted Nero to scold the crowd for not setting a good example, he said.
“The last few days, we’ve seen attacks — some of them which we have no control over, which are on blog sites. And you wonder where everybody’s getting down on kids for saying these things but you folks who boo — you’re setting the example for these kids,” Nero said. “We have not sent a good sample and you folks need to set a good example.”
Even before the public comment period began, School Committee chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi warned the crowd that anyone speaking ill will of Ahlquist “clearly does not understand the intent of the banner and will be asked to leave,” adding that even if she doesn’t agree with Ahlquist, “we can all recognize her bravery for standing up for what she believes in.”
But some in the crowd couldn’t contain their frustration, including French, who screamed that she was being slandered when Kerri Kelleher spoke and refuted an assertion by a previous speaker — who identified herself as a Narragansett resident — that the district has a $133 million budget and could easily afford to continue the legal battle.
Iannazzi ordered French to be escorted from the room after she rushed towards the stage and threw a fistful of bills towards the committee.
“Here’s your money,” she shouted.
Ahquist herself addressed the committee and urged its members not to pursue an appeal. She noted that Judge Lagueux is a Catholic and conservative “and even he sees this is not to be in a public school.”
“This is not about religion,” Ahlquist said. “This is about the Constitution and it always has been. Religion does not have a place in public school and this country was not founded on the idea of Christianity and Christian principles. It was founded on the idea of religious freedom. If you want to defend the Constitution, you will remove the banner.”
And then there was Ray Bosscia, a longtime Cranston resident who said he intitially was in favor of keeping the banner, but after reading Lagueux’s decision, he has begun to think “he may be right.”
Bosscia said maybe a “Our heavenly father” and “amen” could be removed from the banner to keep it in place. That was a suggestion from the ACLU early on, but the committee rejected it.
“If we had done that in the beginning, would we be here now?”
The committee did not take any action on the banner issue at the meeting. School Committee Member Frank Lombardi said he appreciated everyone who showed interest in the issue and “think it provides for spirited debate.”
The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, which provided legal services to the school district, will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks and will let the committee know if an appeal is worth considering. That means no action will be taken anytime soon, Lombardi said.