A 16-year-old Rhode Island atheist said Thursday she is confident the law is on her side in her fight over a prayer mural that she wants removed from the auditorium of her high school, the Associated Press reports:
Jessica Ahlquist said her side is “very strong” after attorneys for her and the city of Cranston made their case to Senior Judge Ronald R. Lagueux in U.S. District Court in Providence. Ahlquist believes the mural should be taken down. […]
Ahlquist sued in federal court in April, saying the mural is offensive to non-Christians. Ahlquist has been an atheist since age 10. She is represented by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Lagueux took the case under advisement. He visited the school auditorium earlier in the day to see the mural in person.
Lynette Labinger, the ACLU lawyer representing high school junior Jessica Ahlquist, said the painting was an unconstitutional state endorsement of a religious prayer. The painting is topped by a title saying “School Prayer,” she said. It begins with “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen.”
“This is government speech,” she told Senior U. S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux. “This is a government prayer.”
But Joseph V. Cavanagh Jr., the School Committee’s lawyer, said the mural, written and put up in the high school auditorium in the early 1960s, was essentially a secular call to students to do well and be good citizens, with some religious references common to the time it was written.
“It’s not in your face,” Cavanagh said. “It’s not forced on anyone.” […]
The Establishment Clause didn’t mean the courts should extinguish all references to religion, he said. He noted coins still say “In God We Trust” and, when the Rhode Island Supreme Court is in session, the justices sit under an inscription in Latin that says “not under man but under God and law.”
The courts should prevent government forcing participation in religious ceremonies or acts, he said. But the School Department didn’t require the prayer be read aloud, he said, held no ceremonies around it and didn’t make any effort to attract attention to it. It was a relic, a historical document of a different time with a secular message to students to do well, he said.
He leaned heavily on a Texas case in which the court allowed a monument with the Ten Commandments to remain in a public park. That ruling said simply having religious content didn’t make something automatically unconstitutional.
“There has to be some breathing room in the Establishment Clause,” he said.
People who are too easily offended by something they don’t agree with are ill-prepared for today’s society.
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