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Rhode Island public school committee votes not to appeal prayer banner case

Rhode Island Public School Prayer Banner

October 13: A prayer banner is seen on the wall of an auditorium at Cranston High School West, in Cranston, R.I.AP

A Rhode Island public school district committee on Thursday voted not to appeal a federal court decision ordering the removal of a prayer banner displayed in a high school in a lawsuit brought on behalf of a 16-year-old atheist.

The Cranston School Committee voted 5-2 at a public hearing to discuss the suit involving Jessica Ahlquist, a junior at Cranston High School West.

After the vote, she said, "I'm thrilled." The hearing lasted more than two hours.

The banner, put up in 1963, has been covered since a federal judge last month ruled it was unconstitutional and ordered its removal. The Class of 1963, which was the first to graduate from the school, gave the prayer and school creed as gifts.

Appeal opponents cited the legal costs as grounds for giving up the fight.

Lawyers representing Ahlquist have asked the court to order the city to pay $173,000 for legal fees. Attorney Joseph Cavanagh Jr., who represented the city, said a legal fight in the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston and the U.S. Supreme Court would cost another $500,000 in legal fees.

"You will be wasting time and incredible resources. Half a million dollars? How dare you," resident Rosemary Tregar said.

Student David Sears Jr., 15, asked the board to appeal.

"We have to appeal for the students of Cranston High School West and we have to appeal for our humanity," he said.

The legal battle over the banner incited passionate debate on both sides and made Ahlquist the target of online threats.

The atmosphere in auditorium was raucous at times. People pressing for the legal fight to continue wore signs around their necks that said "Appeal."

Some Ahlquist supporters wore T-shirts that said "Evil little thing," a reference to what state Rep. Peter G. Palumbo, a Cranston Democrat, said about the teen on talk radio.

After the court ruling, the junior was briefly shadowed by a police officer at school, and several florists declined to deliver flowers to her from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

People have flocked to school committee meetings to voice their opinions and protests have been held outside the high school.

Richard Tomlins, 80, who was unsuccessful in his run for Cranston mayor in 2010, said he spent about $1,000 on automated calls and an online video that urges residents to push the school committee to appeal. He was gaveled down after going over his time limit for speaking and ended his address after being approached by a police officer.

The dispute began after Ahlquist noticed the prayer displayed in the school auditorium at the end of her freshman year. Ahlquist, who has been an atheist since age 10, started a Facebook page to support removing the banner and argued for taking it down before the school committee, according to court filings.

The prayer encourages students to strive academically and begins with the words "Our Heavenly Father" and ends with "Amen."

Ahlquist argued the banner didn't belong and signaled to her that the school didn't respect her views.

The school committee voted in March to fight litigation over the banner. Volunteer attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on Ahlquist's behalf in April.