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Prayer Banner in School Held Unconstitutional by Federal Court
Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year old atheist teenager, who allegedly felt “ostracized” by the prayer banner of Cranston High School West, Rhode Island, won a case against the school this week, where the prayer banner was held unconstitutional by a federal judge and the Cranston High School West signed a settlement awarding $25 to Jessica in compensation and $150, 000 to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in legal fees.
The settlement was disclosed on Tuesday by Raymond Votto, the chief School Department’s operating officer, at a news conference. Votto said that employees took 11 hours on the weekend to excavate the prayer banner and an auditorium slab to comply with the order of the federal judge.
While the judgment was signed on Wednesday, after the prayer banner had been taken down, seven people filed petitions to defend the prayer banner in the last hours before the judgment was signed. The people who objected to the removal of the prayer banner maintained that the words “Heavenly Father” and “Amen” does not violate the constitution as earlier ruled by the federal judge in January. However, the school committee voted not to appeal the court’s decision.
The attitude of the school committee was clear. With budget cuts all around the mounting legal fees had become a nightmare. The settlement allowed the school committee to get off by paying $150,000 in legal fees to ACLU instead of ACLU’s initial claim of $173,000.
The issue started in July 2010 when ACLU asked Cranston High School West to remove the prayer banner that made Jessica, who was an atheist, feel ostracized. In March, 2011, decided upon a majority vote in the school committee, the school continued to display the prayer banner. Then the matter went to court. The court ordered the banner to be reworded removing “Heavenly Father” and “Amen.” The school decided in favor of taking down the banner faced with the alternatives.
Steven Brown, executive director for the Rhode Island ACLU told the media “We are very pleased that we were able to resolve the lawsuit without the need for further appeals. The settlement provides our client with all of the relief she sought when she first filed the lawsuit.”
Jessica, who received the “relief” of $25 intends to transfer to a different school with closing of the current school year.