Seven sue to block banner removal

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2012

Seven people are seeking an injunction to block a federal judge’s ruling that ordered Cranston High School West to remove a prayer banner from its auditorium, the Providence Journal reported. After almost two months of debating whether to appeal the ruling, the banner was officially removed last weekend. 

Jessica Ahlquist, a junior at Cranston West, filed suit to remove the banner last April, and the U.S. District Court ruled in her favor in January. The city and school were ordered to pay $150,000 to compensate the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union for the cost of representing her in court.

It is unclear how this new lawsuit will affect the city’s payment or the status of the banner. 

The original reimbursement cost was $173,000 prior to negotiations. The ACLU reached an agreement with the city and school after the Cranston School Committee decided not to file an appeal challenging the judge’s decision. 

“I still feel the judge undervalued or missed the historical significance of the banner in his decision,” said Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. But challenging the decision would be expensive if the city lost again, which the city could not afford, he added.

The school may have had to pay the ACLU an additional $500,000 if it lost an appeal, Joseph Cavanagh, the Committee’s lawyer told the Providence Journal in February.

Despite the large payout, Fung remains confident Cranston will be able to avoid any large cuts as a result of the lawsuit. “We hope to be able to make it up in other line items that are running under budget,” he said. 

It is impossible to know what kind of cuts, if any, the school will have to make as a result of this lawsuit until after the budgets come out later this year, said Michael Traficante, a member of the Cranston School Committee. 

Even if the school and city can avoid major cuts, several members of the committee are trying to raise money to offset any costs incurred as a result of the lawsuit. One option for raising funds might be to sell the banner, Traficante said. The banner will remain in storage until the committee decides what to do with it. 

Traficante said he felt the city should have appealed the ruling and was missing an opportunity to stand up for its values. 

“I thought it was important enough that we continue this fight,” Traficante said. “That particular banner — given the fact that it was up there for 50 years plus — is a … historic document that was a part of our city’s history.” 

Traficante said he does not regret that the city has to pay the ACLU, but he does “regret that this (controversy) ever happened.” 

Jessica Ahlquist’s lawsuit accused the banner of violating first amendment rights protecting against government establishment of religion. The banner began with an invocation to “Heavenly Father” and ended with the traditionally religious, “Amen.”

Tensions ran high following the judge’s decision in January, and Ahlquist faced threats of violence and name-calling. Rep. Peter Palumbo, D-Cranston called her “an evil little thing” on the John DePetro Radio Show.