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         Posted on :21:38:07 Feb 17, 2012
   
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       Last edited on:21:38:07 Feb 17, 2012
         Tags: Rhode Island, public school, prayer
 

CRANSTON: A Rhode Island school board voted on Thursday to comply with a federal court order to remove a prayer banner that has been displayed in a public high school for nearly a half century, saying the cash-strapped district cannot face a costly appeal.

A federal judge ordered the controversial banner, which addresses "Our Heavenly Father" and ends with "Amen," removed last month in response to a lawsuit by a high school junior and atheist who said its religious language made her feel excluded.

But the lawsuit by Jessica Ahlquist stirred strong feelings in the city of Cranston, where some residents saw the effort to remove the 8-foot high by 4-foot wide banner, on display since 1963 in the school auditorium, as a slap at tradition and an assault on religion.

"I'm pleased with the vote," said Ahlquist, guarded by one of the police officers who ringed the packed school board meeting after scouring the space with bomb-sniffing dogs. "Obviously it was the right decision to make."

The board voted 5-2 against filing an appeal, a move that means the school must now remove the banner within 10 days under the court order, a board member said.

"The ACLU is going to win solely because of the fiscal condition of Cranston," school board chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi told a crowd of 500 people, as some cheered and others booed the vote to comply with the order to remove the banner at Cranston High School West based on a mandate of separation of church and state.

Tempers flared during the four-hour debate leading up to the vote over a lawsuit that has already cost the city close to $200,000, and a city attorney warned that an appeal could more than double costs.

City attorney Joseph Cavanagh appealed for calm, urging parents to remember painful school budget cuts and consider the best use of their shrinking resources. Still, some in the crowd could barely contain their anger.

"What's happening now is an attack on any type of religion," said Ron Valiquette, of Lincoln, R.I. "This is about more to us than one atheist objecting when there is something on the wall that doesn't pertain to her."

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