One of the hottest topics in RI is the decision of a federal judge to bar a public high school from maintaining a display in its gymnasium that is, in effect, a prayer. The student who brought the lawsuit has been vilified, as has the judge who simply was following the Constitution. Below is an article from the Sunday Projo that provides some historical context for the decision.
What would Roger Williams have done?
What would Roger Williams have thought about the prayer banner at Cranston High School West?
Many are raising that question amid bitter debate about the banner, which a federal judge has ordered removed. But few are in a better position to provide an answer than John M. Barry, author of a new book titled “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul.”
Barry, who graduated from Classical High School in 1964 and Brown University in 1968, is known for becoming an expert on the subjects of his books. He wrote “The Great Influenza” and ended up advising the Bush and Obama administrations on pandemic preparedness. He wrote “Rising Tide” and headed a bipartisan panel on flood control.
So what would Rhode Island’s founder have thought about the banner? “I have no doubt in my mind that Williams would find that offensive in a public building,” Barry said.
Much of the banner’s text is “completely harmless” and nonsectarian, he said. For instance, it urges students to be “kind and helpful” and “good sports.” But it begins with the words “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with the word “Amen.” And Williams was absolute in his belief that the state “should have nothing to do with worship” and that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” he said.
Williams viewed prayer a very serious communication with God, Barry said. “He felt that when you forced worship, then the best you are going to get is hypocrisy from some people,” and Williams despised hypocrisy, especially hypocrisy in religion.
While today’s focus is on how religion affects government, Williams was more concerned about how government affects religion, Barry said. “In today’s terms, he would say that when you mix religion and politics, you get politics.”
Keep in mind that Williams was a devout minister. “People who literally wanted to see him dead never questioned his devotion to God,” Barry said. “But it was between him and God, and he felt the state had no business getting in between them; it would be a sacrilege and a corruption of the church to involve the state.”
In the first draft of Providence’s founding compact, Williams asked for God’s blessing, but he removed those words in the final draft “because he decided government should be entirely secular,” Barry said. “And if you look at the U.S. Constitution, it’s a completely secular document. While it asks for blessings, it asks for the blessings of liberty.”
The depth of Williams’ devotion highlights that the banner debate is not a referendum on God. It’s a matter of separating church and state — a bedrock principle for this state in particular. Jessica Ahlquist, the 16-yearold student who challenged the constitutionality of the banner, is an atheist. But you can have an active faith in God, as I do, and still recognize well-established First Amendment principles, which dictate that we take particular care in separating church and state in public schools.
That point was driven home last week when religious leaders from around Rhode Island spoke outside a Cranston church, decrying the shameful way Ahlquist has been treated by some members of the community.
Rabbi Amy Levin, vice president of the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis, said it’s clear that “a religious declaration addressed to ‘Our Father in Heaven’ does not belong on the walls of a public high school.”
It’s clear that the verbal attacks and threats directed at a teenager are at odds with the values expressed in the prayer, Levin said. “Walking the talk of that Cranston West prayer banner means discourse with mutual respect and honor for every human being created by God.”
It’s also clear that “taking down this banner can never pose a threat to anyone’s faith,” Levin said. “Your faith goes with you wherever you go. Faith needs no banner to live in our hearts.”
Levin, of Cranston’s Temple Torat Yisrael, said some members of her congregation attended Cranston West in the 1960s, and they’ve told her that having a prayer banner prominently displayed in a public school auditorium made them and their parents uncomfortable, but they were afraid to speak out against it.
“Fifty years later, Jessica has given public voice to the discomfort of generations of students who came before her,” she said. “She has been subjected to the treatment that others feared to bring upon themselves.”
David A. Logan — dean of the state’s only law school, which is at a university named for Roger Williams — said Ahlquist fits into a tradition of courageous plaintiffs, exemplified by “the lonely pamphleteer,” who adopt a minority viewpoint, face ostracism and harsh criticism and turn to the federal courts to vindicate their rights.
“Elsewhere in the world, if you’re in the majority, you presume you get to impose your point of view on the minority,” Logan said. In the United States, the majority does dictate in a lot of areas, but the Bill of Rights provides a “trump card” that protects minority viewpoints on certain matters, he said. “That was one of the revolutionary things about this country.”
Logan said Senior U.S. District Judge Ronald R. Lagueux, who wrote the Jan. 11 decision, is “the latest in a long line of courageous federal judges who have protected the rights of the minority against the clear expressed preferences of the majority.” And he said the banner case highlights how lifetime appointments provide federal judges with the independence to make rulings upholding minority rights.
Logan said the lawyers who represented Ahlquist also displayed courage in taking a case that was bound to be unpopular in the nation’s most Catholic state — a state which, despite its founder, has often been a battleground over church/state separation.
Logan said the legal principle at the heart of the banner case was not a new one, and given the facts of the case, it was not a close call. “In short, Judge Lagueux was planted squarely in the mainstream of constitutional law,” he said.
Lagueux explained that the First Amendment mandates that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and the 14th Amendment extends that mandate to the states. “The guiding principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence has been government neutrality,” he wrote. And the U.S. Supreme Court has said that when it comes to public schools, “given the impressionability of the young, government must exercise particular care in separating church and state.”
The Supreme Court has acknowledged that insisting on government neutrality “may appear to border upon religious hostility,” Lagueux noted. “But in the long view the independence of both church and state in their respective spheres will be better served by close adherence to the neutrality principle.” That, in essence, is the wisdom of Roger Williams. firstname.lastname@example.org