By Mary Ellen Godin
CRANSTON, Rhode Island (Reuters) - A school committee geared up on Thursday for boisterous crowds expected at its meeting on a federal court order to remove a prayer banner that has hung for decades inside a local public school.
The public hearing on whether to appeal the court ruling is the latest in a series of what have been heated exchanges between people who want to keep the banner on display in the auditorium of Cranston High School West and those backing a Cranston student, an atheist, who requested it be taken down.
A federal judge ordered last month that school officials remove the 8-foot high by 4-foot wide prayer banner that dates to about 1963 from the wall, agreeing that religious expression should be kept separate from public school.
The prayer begins with "Our Heavenly Father," and goes on to discuss being kind, honest and good sports before ending with "Amen."
Complaints about the banner first surfaced in 2010 and the student, Jessica Ahlquist, later escalated those concerns with a lawsuit and online Facebook discussion page.
Ahlquist, now a junior, said a friend first pointed out the banner during her freshman year. According to court documents, she experienced feelings of exclusion and ostracism because of the prayer.
Ahlquist was raised Catholic as a child, but around the age of 10 she became an avowed atheist, court documents said.
Although Ahlquist has received some support, she has also been taunted for even suggesting the prayer banner be altered or removed, court records show.
Many of those who want to keep the mural in place have referenced their strong Catholic religious beliefs, while others have said the banner conveys respect, moral values and the history of the school.
Despite arguments the banner had a predominantly secular purpose, a federal judge ruled it to be a prayer "and a Christian one at that," according to court documents.
The prayer has been covered with wood until the school committee decides whether or not to appeal the ruling. A vote was expected to come following Thursday's open hearing.
If the school committee does not appeal the ruling, it is required to immediately and permanently take down the prayer.
(Additional reporting By Lauren Keiper; Editing by Paul Thomasch)
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