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Rhode Island town readies for 'boisterous' hearing on now-covered prayer banner

  • 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)

  • Cranston High School prayer banner

    The prayer banner in the Cranston High School West auditorium in Cranston, R.I., is now covered with plywood. School district officials will vote next week on whether to appeal an order requiring its removal. (Cranston Public Schools)

A Rhode Island town is bracing for a potentially "boisterous" public hearing next week where officials will vote on whether to fight a court order to take down a prayer banner that has hung for decades in a high school.

Extra police will be on hand for the highly charged meeting at Cranston's High School East, as critics of the federal judge's order to remove the prayer banner -- which hangs in Cranston High School West's auditorium -- are expected to show up in full force.

"We're expecting a lot of people to be there," Carlos Lopez, a spokesman for Mayor Allen Fung, told FoxNews.com. "It's going to be a circus, so bring your popcorn."

The banner hung for decades until Jessica Ahlquist, a student who is an atheist, complained to the American Civil Liberties Union. The judge ruled Wednesday the banner can be covered by plywood while officials decide whether to fight the removal order, according to Ray Votto, a spokesman for Cranston Public Schools, which serves nearly 12,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The text of the banner begins "Our Heavenly Father," and goes on to state, "Grant us each day the desire to do our best, To grow mentally and morally as well as physically, To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers, To be honest with ourselves as well as with others, Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win, Teach us the value of true friendship, Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West. Amen."

Supporters say the banner conveys a positive message and should remain unobscured. A Facebook group called "Preserve the Banner" has 865 supporters as of Thursday and features pictures of T-shirts that display the entire text of the banner. The group was reportedly created by Cranston High School West graduates Bobby Bach and Dennis Conte.

Critics, including the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, say the banner violates the separation of church and state.

A Facebook page dedicated to Ahlquist -- who noticed the sign while visiting the school and notified ACLU officials -- had nearly 5,000 supporters as of Thursday.

"I'm proud of Jessica Ahlquist for standing her ground," one user wrote.

Maj. Robert Ryan, public information officer for the Cranston Police Department, said "sufficient police presence" will be at the meeting, but said no specific intelligence had been received regarding potential disturbances.

"We'd rather be proactive and be overly prepared," Ryan told FoxNews.com. "We just know it's been a hot button issue from the onset and has generated quite a deal of publicity and animosity on both sides. We just want to be prepared."

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