“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
There is a strong perception among Christians, fueled in no small part by election campaign rhetoric, that secularists are waging a war on religion in America. Last month’s court ruling in Rhode Island on the removal of a prayer mural in a Public High School has certainly raised the volume in this debate. Much has been written on Jessica Ahlquist’s suit versus the City of Cranston, RI – from malicious death threats received to State Representative Peter Palumbo calling her an “evil little thing.” It is obviously an emotional issue – but little has been written about Senior US District Judge, Ronald Lagueux’s ruling on the matter.
Cooler minds have questioned “activist court” decisions in public-religious disputes. Many feel that the Founding Fathers never intended that Jefferson’s Wall of Separation be maintained between church and state and that the Constitutionality of removing religion from the public sphere was never intended. While I disagree wholeheartedly with that viewpoint, far more important than my opinion is how the court interprets the constitution and the criteria used to come to the finding.
Lagueux’s 40 page ruling describes the complaint, details the background of the issue as well as testimony received, then makes the two important determinations: 1. Does the plaintiff have standing in the matter and 2. Does the prayer mural violate the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment?
In terms of the legal ruling, the defendants, the City of Cranston, sought to establish that neither Jessica nor her father, had standing in the matter.
Defendants point out that Plaintiff must demonstrate a real and actual injury-in-fact in order to establish proper standing; a mere philosophical or political disagreement is insufficient. Defendants argue that neither Plaintiff nor her father, co-Plaintiff Mark Ahlquist, can show an actual injury.
Without standing, the court would have to dismiss the case on grounds that the plaintiffs were not in a position to seek redress from the court. The criteria Judge Lagueux lays out to determine standing follows:
Injury in factTo determine whether or not a plaintiff has standing, the First Circuit employs a three-part test, derived directly from the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.The plaintiff must have suffered1) an injury in fact;2) which is caused by the offending conduct; and3) which is capable of being redressed by a favorable court decision.
Lagueux determined, based on the testimony, that Jessica Ahlquist did indeed meet the standing requirement needed to bring the case to court. Lagueux writes:
This Court is satisfied that the Supreme Court, were it to analyze Plaintiff’s standing herein, would determine that her status as a student enrolled at Cranston West is sufficient to confer standing in a dispute about a prayer displayed at her school. Like the student in Lee v. Weisman, she is a captive audience. Beyond that, Plaintiff has stated that the presence of a Christian prayer on the wall of her school has made her feel ostracized and out of place. She has also stated that she doesn’t find the text of the Prayer to be offensive. The Court fails to find these statements inconsistent. It is possible to object to the presence of the Prayer Mural without having to find its goals of academic achievement and good sportsmanship offensive. While her injuries might be characterized as abstract, those injuries are consistent with the injuries complained of by other plaintiffs in Establishment Clause litigation, such as Engel v. Vitale and the Schempp case, and readily distinguishable from the cases where the Supreme Court has determined that plaintiffs lacked standing, such as Lujan, Valley Forge Christian College, and Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow.
Lagueux goes on to explain, after establishing that the plaintiff does indeed meeting the standing requirement, that it is now for the court to determine the merit of the complaint.
Having determined that Plaintiff has standing to bring her lawsuit, it remains for the Court to explain why her challenge prevails. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” This mandate was extended to the states with the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment. Though the words are simple, their application to the circumstances of our evolving nation has been complex and contentious. The guiding principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence has been government neutrality.In McCreary County v. ACLU, the Supreme Court wrote:“The touchstone for our analysis is the principle that the First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion. When the government acts with the ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion, it violates that central Establishment Clause value of official religious neutrality, there being no neutrality when the government’s ostensible object is to take sides.
Judge Lagueux, citing numerous examples of case law and previous rulings on similar challenges, and applied what the US Supreme Court describes as the “Lemon test,” from Lemon v. Kurtzman:
According to the Lemon v. Kurtzman analysis, a governmental practice, or legislative act, must satisfy three tests in order to survive an Establishment Clause challenge. It must: “(1) reflect a clearly secular purpose; (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) it must avoid excessive government entanglement with religion.”
Lagueux examines each prong of the Lemon test in detail (bolded text is my emphasis added):
It must reflect a clearly secular purpose
To examine the secular-ness of Cranston West’s Prayer Mural, one must reflect upon almost fifty years of history. The purposes of the Prayer, when drafted, and the Prayer Mural, when installed, were clearly religious in nature. David Bradley was assigned the task of authoring the School Prayer in 1959, prior to the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in Engel v. Vitale finding daily prayer recitations in public school constitutionally impermissible. Soon after, Cranston West ended the recitation of prayer, but the School Prayer was memorialized in the form of the Prayer Mural.No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that. Its opening, calling upon the “Heavenly Father,” is an exclusively Christian formulation of a monotheistic deity, leaving out, inter alia, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists alike. The Prayer concludes with the indisputably religious closing: “Amen;” a Hebrew word used by Jews, Christians and Muslims to conclude prayers. In between, the Prayer espouses values of honesty, kindness, friendship and sportsmanship. While these goals are commendable, the reliance on God’s intervention as the way to achieve those goals is not consistent with a secular purpose.
Lagueux then tries to determine or establish the meaning and context of how the prayer mural is viewed today by the school administration
|Cranston West Prayer Mural|
To determine the present purpose of the Prayer Mural, it is necessary to examine the School Committee’s motivations and its March 2011 vote to defend the Mural. While the tenor of the School Committee’s open meeting at times resembled a religious revival, the reasons articulated by the four School Committee members who voted to keep the Prayer Mural up, even in the face of anticipated litigation, were nuanced and varied. Two Committee members were clearly motivated by their adherence to strong Catholic religious beliefs. Other reasons cited for keeping the Prayer Mural included the importance of conveying moral values to high school students; the importance of history and tradition to Cranston West; the importance of respecting each student’s contribution to the school; and the importance to these elected officials of responding to their constituency. The Court refrains from second-guessing the expressed motives of the Committee members, but nonetheless must point out that tradition is a murky and dangerous bog. While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction. The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular.
It must have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion
Lemon’s second prong prohibits government action that has a primary effect of advancing or hindering religion. To the extent the installation, 46-year-long maintenance and March 2011 endorsement of the Prayer Mural has an effect, its impact is to advance religion. The Prayer Mural espouses important moral values, yet it does so in the context of religious supplication. The retention of the Prayer Mural is no doubt a nod to Cranston West’s tradition and history, yet that nod reflects the nostalgia felt by some members of the community who remember fondly when the community was sufficiently homogeneous that the religion of its majority could be practiced in public schools with impunity.
It must avoid excessive government entanglement with religion
It is on this prong that Cranston West’s Prayer Mural reveals its most troubling aspect. The Cranston School Committee and its subcommittee held four open meetings to consider the fate of the Mural. At those meetings a significantly lopsided majority of the speakers spoke passionately, and in religious terms, in favor of retaining the Prayer Mural. Various speakers read from the bible, spoke about their personal religious convictions, threatened Plaintiff with damnation on Judgment Day and suggested that she will go to hell.The atmosphere was such that the Superintendent of Schools felt compelled to discuss his own religious beliefs at length when he made his recommendation to the Committee that they vote to retain the Prayer Mural. Similarly, five of the seven School Committee members expressed avowals of their own religious beliefs at the meeting, including two of those who voted against retaining the Mural. This is precisely the sort of “civic divisiveness,”…that the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause cases repeatedly warn against.When focused on the Prayer Mural, the activities and agenda of the Cranston School Committee became excessively entangled with religion, exposing the Committee to a situation where a loud and passionate majority encouraged it to vote to override the constitutional rights of a minority.
In finding for the plaintiff, Judge Lagueux wrote:
While Plaintiff recalls feeling ostracized and alone, the constitutionality of the Prayer Mural turns not on Plaintiff’s feelings, but rather on the Court’s assessment of how a reasonable and objective observer, fully aware of the background and circumstances, would view the Prayer Mural and the conduct of the School Committee.The Supreme Court offers two pertinent lessons. First, the Supreme Court urges us to remember that “insistence upon neutrality, vital as it surely is for untrammeled religious liberty, may appear to border upon religious hostility. 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.” … Second, later in the same opinion, the Supreme Court addresses the circumstance in Engel, where, as here, the complaints of a few overcame the beliefs and desires of the majority: “Nor did it matter that few children had complained of the practice, for the measure of the seriousness of a breach of the Establishment Clause has never been thought to be the number of people who complain of it.” … Plaintiff is clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community.
Full text of the decision can be found here.
This decision, and future challenges to the separation of church and state sure to come, should not be viewed through the prism of a “war on religion” – although it will certainly be cast in this light. There is a place for religion in this country – in our homes and our places of worship. We should neither desire nor expect our governmental institutions – from the court house to the public school to favor any one religion over another – even if that religion appears to coincide with your particular belief system.
The Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment is designed specifically to protect religious freedoms — all forms of religious freedom from the government. When “we” push the government to adopt a particular brand of religion over another, in effect asking the state to endorse a theological view – we are in fact surrendering religious freedoms and liberties. If anything, the bile and scorn that was heaped upon Ms. Ahlquist should be reserved for the leaders of the Cranston, Rhode Island for not recognizing that their actions in defending the Prayer Mural were in effect an attempt to weaken religious freedom.