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The Fallout in Cranston

Back in January, I wrote about Jessica Ahlquist’s court victory over an illegal “School Prayer” banner in her high school in Cranston, Rhode Island. That was almost the end of the story, but since then, there have been a few further developments.

In February, following a tumultuous hearing, the school board grudgingly did the right thing and decided not to appeal. Taking the case further into farce, a few Cranston die-hards tried to intervene after the decision had been handed down and filed a bizarre motion essentially asking for a do-over, for which they were rightly slapped down by the judge. And we had an unpleasant reminder that a teenage girl who took a brave stand for the Constitution continues to get vile and violent threats from pious supporters of prayer. Several local florists even spitefully refused to deliver to her house when the FFRF ordered a thank-you bouquet.

Now, there’s one more development that will hopefully draw a line under this case once and for all. The city of Cranston and the school district have agreed to split the bill for $150,000 in legal fees that are owed to the Rhode Island affiliate of the ACLU, which was litigating on behalf of Jessica and her family.

As I’ve said many times, this shouldn’t have been necessary. When it comes to school-sponsored prayer, the law is settled and as clear as it can possibly be. No doubt it will hurt the students and the taxpayers of Cranston to pick up the tab for this lawsuit, but the blame lies entirely with the loudmouthed and ignorant majority who wanted the government to endorse their religious beliefs. Democracy gives people the freedom to make bad decisions, and the people of Cranston made some very bad ones indeed; now they have to pay the price. If they had just agreed to take down the banner when Jessica asked them to, none of this would have happened. They could have hung it up in a local church if they’d wanted, and the church-state violation would have been easily and painlessly resolved. Instead, they chose to fight a battle they had no chance of winning.

In fact, they’re getting off lightly. Jessica and her family didn’t ask for any monetary damages, though they’d have been within their rights to do so – especially considering all the harassment, bullying and violent threats she’s gotten for her brave stand. And in many church-state cases, like the Dover intelligent-design case, the victorious plaintiffs didn’t even ask for the full amount of legal fees they were entitled to claim. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was also true here.

The moral of this story is that faith is poison to sound public policy. The people of Cranston, rather than taking a sober look at the law, convinced themselves that they were righteous holy warriors and that this made them special, that this gave them an exemption from the rules. Whereas calm reason would have convinced them they had no chance of prevailing, faith encouraged them to believe that they’d miraculously triumph, somehow, if they took the stubborn and stupid course of action. In short, faith encourages people to make bad bets. The people of Cranston are now paying for theirs, and it’s all but certain they won’t be the last.

Image credit: Tomas Castelazo, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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