23 Aug 2014
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LIVE: Prayer Banner Appeal Meeting APPEAL FAILS

Follow our coverage of tonight's School Committee meeting during which members will decide whether to appeal the court ruling against a prayer banner at Cranston West.

6:25 p.m.: A crowd gathered outside Cranston High School East before 6 p.m. Many wore signs that simply stated "appeal." Someone else brought a sign that makes reference to the flying spaghetti monster. The doors to the school opened around 6:15 and the auditorium here is already full. Children are holding large signs that say "God has the right to be in public! The constitution says so!"

Another section of the auditorium is represented by supporters of Jessica Ahlquist. "Solidarity." "My religion is kindness." "I support Jessica Ahlquist" their signs read.

The media presence here is large. Expect lots of coverage tomorrow morning from across the country.

"There is no standing room," a voice booms over the loudspeakers. "If you don't have a seat, you will be asked to leave."

6:31 p.m.: Applause erupts as a young man tapes a sign supporting Ahlquist higher up on a concrete pillar. A chant in support of an appeal breaks out a few moments later. Energy in the room is steadily increasing as the School Committee talks behind closed doors in executive session.

6:42 p.m.: A shout out to my colleague Matt Sanderson, editor of Tiverton-Little Compton Patch. He's here with his camera so I can focus on taking notes and updating this story as it unfolds.

6:43 p.m.: The crowd has settled into seats and the wait is on for the School Committee to return from executive session and open the meeting.

7:09 p.m.: School Committee is still in executive session. Trying to conserve battery power. We'll tweet when the action is really going on. In the meantime, you can brush up on the issue we're talking about tonight by clicking here to sift through our large story archive.

7:20 p.m.: The committee is here. Meeting started after a very loud pledge of allegiance.

Superintendent Peter Nero said the administration is ready to support the committee's decision, whichever way it goes.

He says despite contrary reports, Cranston West continued to be a "typical high school" in the days following the lower court decision.

Everything is in place for a smooth day tomorrow, Nero said.

Addressing social media: We are in the disinformation age, Nero said.

He has received hundreds of emails from people expressing their opinion about the issue from around the world. In them, he heard a phrase he hasn't heard since the Democratic Convention: The world is watching you.

Nero calls for decorum, respect and everyone to be on their good behavior. He warned the crowd not to be rude or unruly, especially when a student is at the podium."

"The way the world will view Cranston is really up to you."

7:28 p.m.: City's lawyer, Joesph Cavanaugh Jr., gives a history of the banner, and said there were two legal tests that the judge could have based his review on. Cranston argued it was historic display, but the judge viewed it through the lens that the mural is a prayer, mainly because of the presence of the term "school prayer."

An appeal would go to the First Circuit Court in Boston, briefs would be filed. No trial.

"If we appeal and city loses in First Circuit there will be more fees automatically," Cavanaugh said. The city already is being asked to pay $173,000 for legal fees so far.

His estimate - fee in range of $100,000 if goes to first circuit, $200,000 if beyond. To run it up the ladder in the hopes of the Supreme Court taking it as a "display case" and not a "prayer case" it could cost $500,000.

Cavanaugh said the banner was never used as a prayer per se, and "doesn't represent prayer being taken away from these kids" addressing a widespread feeling that the decision is an attack on religion.

A lot of people think that God should have more of a presence in our lives, "but this case will not solve that."

7:37 p.m.: Cavanaugh said the class of 1963 unfortunately got caught in the crossfire and something they hoped would remain a permanent part of their legacy will come down. He calls on the community to treat each other with respect. 

Cavanaugh is thanked by the committee, he became a "lifelong friend" said School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi. No matter what happens, she said she is proud to share part of history with him.

Four pages of speakers signed up to speak tonight. Public speaking will end at 10 p.m. At that time the committee will make their own comments and then vote.

Committee Member Frank Lombardi points out he has an "outrage of the week" about someone who posted online - "LOL I can't imagine there's anything dumber than the cranston school committee. Just sayin'"

The School Committee are among the hardest working officials in the state of Rhode Island. We do the research. We do the homework, he says. We do everything for the benefit of taxpayers in the City of Cranston. The point is "we make hard decisions every single night we're here. We make decisions that affect children and their educational livelihood when someone takes to the blogs and calls us dumb we all know in the room who the dumb one is when they say that."

7:48 p.m. BASICS is getting a plug for their Music is Instrumental Program and the fact they're selling food and drinks in the back. Committeewoman Janice Ruggeiri says it's a shame that this many people don't show up when they're doing budget work.

7:51 p.m.: VP Class of 1963 Jerry Zito is at the podium. Says he is glad Cavanaugh referred to the banner as a mural because "that's what it is."

He said he wants to clarify some misinformation about what happened back then. He was actively involved in the process that put the mural up on the wall and believes the class of 1963 has something to say about the mural.

The class of 63 proposes three things -They would be OK with the removal of "Our Heavenly Father" and "Amen" to let it stay.

If the mural has to come down, Zito asks that the mural not be destroyed. If it had to be, he said the class of 1963 would work with the student body to come up with a new pledge or creed to dedicate in 2013 to coincide with their class reunion in June.

7:55 p.m.:

Rep. Charline Lima is up and says she urges appeal because the majority of residents want her to support appeal. She also feels strongly the ruling was not justified by facts in case. Appeal is necessary because principle is "far too important to be left unchallenged" and encourage others to infringe on the Constitution that our founding fathers would never dream of, she said.

"Where is it going to stop? Are we going to change our currency? Are we going to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance?

8:00 p.m.: A woman (didn't catch name) says if the School Committee spends one more dollar on fighting this case instead of spending it on providing a quality education for her two daughters, it "will be an outrage."

She said at the last meeting she was told by someone that she didn't even know "that I would burn in hell."

"The vilification of atheists represents a lack of compassion for another person," she said. "This is a place of public education where we learn skills to reach our full potential to develop as adults and one of those skills is critical thinking."

The lack of critical thinking in regards to the debate has been shocking, she said.

8:08 p.m.: My speakers suddenly blasted classical music and I don't know why. Thank goodness for the mute button on this laptop.

Anette Bourne is up. She said there is a big missed opportunity here. All the great things happening in Cranston in the face of recent budget adversity could be brought up during this emotional debate.

"It is my believe we've been offered a chance to do something great about our state's heritage of Roger Williams and religious freedom by not continuing the legal battle. While we can't afford the legal battle, we can afford the discussion and peaceful resolution.

"Do not take more from the budget and vote against appeal."

8:14 p.m.: Dan McCarthy is up and states he is supporting an appeal because he doesn't think government should condone one form of religion over another. He comes from Irish descent.

"My great grandfather couldn't own his own farm because he was Catholic and the government was Protestant," McCarthy said.

8:20 p.m.: Michelle Verducci, who lives just a couple blocks over, said conflict resolution is something many of her neighbors have "failed at."

She notes that Judge Ronald Lagueux is a conservative Catholic and the ruling was based on well-established case law.

"You are hurting our children and community if you allocate precious resources including time and money to fight a losing battle based on your emotions."

Rosemary Trager up next states essentially the same.

"This is a matter of constitutional law and decided long ago," Trager said.

8:24 p.m.: Salvatore Loporchio states that he is for an appeal.

"We are faced with a cancer that is a terrible thing for our nation," Loporchio said. "The cancer is the ACLU."

8:26 p.m.: Resident Paul Verduchi describes an atheist who is well-loved around the world, has received the Nobel prize, traveled and met with leaders of all nations spreading his message of peace and nonviolence.

That man is the Dalai Lama.

"A lot of people don't realize that Buddhism is an atheist religion," Verduchi said.

8:31 p.m.: Steve Bergquist is up. He asks for an appeal.

"Since day one I knew this was headed to the Supreme Court," Bergquist said. "It's the right thing to do. Someone has to take a stand. They're chipping away at everything and someone just has to take a stand. We are going to win this appeal. I'm completely confident. This case is going to set a precedent around the country. I can't imagine why you wouldn't want to see this through to the end."

8:34 p.m.: Dozens of speakers left to come up. Only an hour-and-a-half left until public debate is closed.

Both sides are applauding, some subtle boos now and then but otherwise the crowd is keeping calm. Lots of speakers admonishing negative words and threatening speech that has been flourishing online. Multiple times speakers have said that the vitriolic response indicates people aren't taking the banner's intended message to heart.

8:46 p.m.: Trying to fix typos as I go along. Speakers are taking turns providing similar arguments, so we're not quoting every person in detail. A blend of quotes from all voices will appear in our detailed coverage tomorrow morning.

There is a large number of people who have stated there are concerned about a perceived attack on religious freedom in the country. The ACLU as a cog of a liberal or progressive movement has been described interestingly, you could say.

8:54 p.m.: Bobby Bach - this has brought division to the city "worse than partisan politics."

As lifelong resident who barely noticed banner when I was student myself" he "truly appreciates" the history and message and how it has caused inspiration.

He refers to a Facebook Page set up shortly after the decision in an effort to preserve the banner.

"We were aimed at creating a level of calm" to see past rhetoric and insults "at times myself guilty of out of weakness," Bach said.

Sidenote, Bach is behind the T-Shirts that depict the banner that he has been selling out his business, Twigs Florist, in an effort to raise money to pay for its removal and transportation.

Bach said he has been told by a company that has done a removal and replacement before that the cost would be about $60,000.

8:57 p.m.: There are many camps in this debate. A big one is made up of people who believe the banner is an historic artifact, not a state-sponsored prayer.

9:03 p.m.: Richard Tomlins is nearly led out of the auditorium by police after speaking loudly beyond his allotted time.

9:07 p.m.

Resident Janine Freeborn - I believe its time for it to stop. Mr. Cavanaugh explained the situation - the money is to be spent on our children, on our education.

"I wonder how many people would be for an appeal if it said Allah instead of Our Father," Freeborn said. "It's a public school. There's a place for everything. There is home, church and school."

9:11 p.m.: Inching closer to the 10 p.m. cutoff. We just had a microphone malfunction. Flo Jonic from Rhode Island NPR is quick to sort it out.

Father Andrew George asks why the judge viewed the mural as a prayer and not an historic document. Cavanaugh said is because it has the word "school prayer" in it and has "petition words' and states "amen."

George: but city represent as display case. Why did he turn it around?
Cavanaugh: Because he disagreed with us. He viewed it is a silent message. Can we whittle the ACLUs legal fees down? "It's up to the judge."

9:16 p.m.: Cranston West student named Christen says he thinks banner should stay. He asked dozens of people and only "got one person that said tear down the prayer."

He is a classmate of Ahlquist's and nobody in his class have not said a negative word ever to her.

"She is not a bad person," he said. "I just don't agree with her."

People think this has torn the school apart.

"This has not torn us apart," he said. "It has made us come together. . .in nonviolent protest in agreement that this should [stay up]"

He brings up the money point that comes up over and over in this discussion. Our currency has "In God We Trust" on it. It was added to U.S. currency in the 50s at the height of McCarthyism. Many pro-banner supporters suggest that atheists are hypocrites by using money. They respond saying it is not illegal to cross it out and people can use debit/credit cards. To get a very clear explanation as to why this doesn't apply in this ruling, click HERE to see the full text of Lagueux's 40-page decision.

9:22 p.m.

The opinions keep bouncing back and forth. Richard Canning said he asked his son, a student at the school, if Ahlquist "went around and got a petition" before making an issue of the banner.

"The answer was no, dad."

Nancy Krane said she was raised a Catholic.

"I was raised in the Catholic chruch. I am asking you to not file an appeal," she said.

Dawn Trudell said Jessica Ahlquist could have made a choice and moved to Cranston East if she had a problem.

"If anyone is wasting money for education it is her and her family," Trudell said.

9:26 p.m.: Paula Goldberg  says she is tired of hearing that we are "a Christian nation"

"We are a diverse nation," she said. "We need to accept diversity here. This is a constitutional issue. It is not a religious issue or an emotional issue."

9:29 p.m.: Peter Paolella: since this started there has been an "astonishing" amount of attacks on religion. He cites Treegate at the State House — the flap over whether the tree at the State House should be called a Christmas Tree or Holiday tree.

He trails off on Obamacare, groans in crowd, some scattered applause. First accusation of socialism/communism of the night. He is not alone in his thinking based on the clapping afterwards.

9:33 p.m.: A man with a laptop hoping to shoot a video is told he wouldn't be allowed to because the speakers in the video are not present and people who are here cannot defer their time to people in a video. The decision is made by Iannazzi.

9:35 p.m.: Twenty-five minutes left until public comment is cut off. 23 percent battery on the laptop. I spy an outlet but a Cranston Police Officer in a Kevlar vest needs to step over for me. Will try to stretch this out. Apologies for typos and errors. Names could be misspelled, will fix that later.

Note: We have been shooting video at the meeting tonight (not every minute) and should have some color and action for your viewing tomorrow.

9:42 p.m.: A number of residents have offered to volunteer time and effort to fund-raise for an appeal. Others have said they are willing to pony up in response to several speakers who have said if the appeal is so important at the risk of cutting into education funds to put their money where their mouths are.

9:46: Rev. Don Clinker said it is hard when we feel our beliefs are trampled on. He tells a version of the Roger Williams story, calling RI "the first place in the world" with a guarantee of freedom of conscience.

He "guaranteed the right of an atheist to live in Rhode Island," he said. "Here a baptist could survive, here an agnostic could survive."

He refused to put God in the charter of the colony. It was the first colony to do that. "He died a Christian man. He died faithful to the God he served."

"My tribe, the Jesus people, went to the coliseums of Rome and were accused of being atheists because they refused to salute the flag of the Emperor," Clinker said.

9:52 p.m.: I'm on the floor. Plugged in. Most of the crowd is still here but many of the youngsters have gone home for late homework and dinner (if they didn't take care of that before coming here tonight.)

Richard Taquet is up and said his two children had no idea where the banner even was when this came up two years ago.

"These children are not forced to say this and recite this," he said. "I have respect for anyone and their beliefs but don't trample our beliefs."

He said he is willing to contribute a large amount of money for a legal defense. "No amount of money is too great," he said, referring to the possible cost.

Next speaker, Laura Black, states "appeal, appeal, appeal."

"God will provide," she said. "What about my rights as a citizen of the United States who wants the banner to stay intact?"

10 p.m.: Interesting point. This meeting started with the Pledge of Allegiance which contains the phrase "under God."

Committee now has the floor.

Iannazzi acknowledged the help given by Cranston Police, Fire Department and city employees who have made this meeting go smoothly so far.

10:01 p.m.: Lombardi makes motion to appeal. Seconded by Traficante.

Lombardi begins by saying that when this started he went on a long dissertation as to why voted to maintain mural at particular time. It is "my belief" that as a lawyer of more than 20 years this is a "winnable case" and an appeal would reflect his beliefs and the majority of constituents.

He offers $1,000 of his own money for legal fees. Offers to take the lead on all School Committee fundraising efforts.

In terms of the monetary issue, "If we win, it will be nothing."

10:12 p.m.: Janice Ruggieri said she was one of original three who voted against a legal defense. She believes that anyone who thinks that there is money for a legal battle "is ignorant" of the history and facts. The district is still trying to pay off millions in a lawsuit they lost prior to her becoming a committee member."

Ruggieri then states that there are many misconceptions about the banner issue - a parent originally raised the issue and brought it up with the ALCU, not the district. They should have come to the district first, Ruggieiri said.

Secondly, the ACLU never came to the district with an offer to have "Our Heavenly Father" and "Amen" removed and ACLU Director Steve Brown said in a news article she read from that there would need to even more changes than just removing those words to make the banner OK.

She said the response from many has been disheartening and she has seen much intolerance and hatred. Committee members themselves have been insulted by "all groups" involved in the debate. They have been called bigots, idiots, and that's just for starters.

The group I feel deserves an apology for commentary and bad press are faculty and staff and students of Cranston West, she said.

"They have tried over and over again to get back to" educating and focusing on their jobs. Meanwhile they're dealing with newspaper articles, news shows and much else interfering, Ruggieri said.

10:21 p.m.: Committee Member Michael Traficante said he was one of the four voting in favor keeping banner in place.

He said Cranston is a city with a great deal of pride.

"I am sick and tired of hearing our city and school dept being depicted as institution of prejudice hostility and lack of compassion," Traficante said. "It is not part of our legacy."

He said this country was built on Christian principles.

"One of our students displayed her greatness. She displayed her courage," he said. "I too have the courage of my convictions. The banner is secular in nature. It's not religious. It's worth fighting for."

We're writing summary here. Full commentary/quotes tomorrow morning.

10:29 p.m.: Committee Member Stephanie Culhane said she encourages people to read the entire budget and see if they can find an extra $173,000.

"I wish you would stop saying 'don't make it about the money,'" Culhane said. "Where were you when I had to vote to cut music from my child's education? Where were you when I had to cut funding for the gifted program? Where will all you be when we have to possibly close a school, lay off teachers because we spent money, money meant for education on a lawsuit."

Member Steve Bloom said the Constitution was set up to protect everyone, not just the majority. He previously voted to remove the banner and will continue to do so.

Paula MacFarland says she will vote NOT to appeal. She had previously voted to defend the banner.

Iannazi said this has been a frustrating debate, but the financial impact is too great.


Note: my Internet died at the last moment. Wasn't able to include detailed comments from Iannazzi and MacFarland. Stay tuned.

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