Thursday, January 19, 2012

Report from the Cranston School Committee Meeting January 18, 2012

Even though the "prayer banner" appeal was not going to be discussed by the School Committee, (they were instead going to talk about the school budget, a real success story overshadowed by the banner hysteria) the meeting became a focal point of protest because the committee would be taking public comments on non-agenda items, and of course there is only one non-agenda item anyone wants to talk about.

My Dan Ciora and I arrived at the meeting early. Walking into the school I approached the auditorium and saw a table set up selling tee shirts to raise funds for programs like music and middle school sports that had been cut because the City of Cranston had been facing budget problems. I asked the woman running the table how business had been and found out that very few people had contributed or shown an interest in the table. The huge crowd gathering had already bought tee shirts, to support the appeal of the banner decision, and seemed to have little interest in supporting education.

I put $5 in her collection bucket, all I had on me.

In the corridor outside the auditorium I was approached by Chris Young, a perennial candidate for office and a well known conservative Catholic, who once threw a an anti-abortion DVD at United States Congressman Patrick Kennedy and was promptly "wrestled to the floor, handcuffed and removed from the building by police" according to the Brown Daily Herald. I am therefore wary when he is close. He who offered Dan and I a xeroxed piece of paper with the words "APPEAL OR VOTE THEM OUT" on it. The signs were to be worn by those who wanted the School Committee to appeal the ruling on penalty of losing the next election.

But as Chris Young drew closer, he recognized me as Jessica's uncle and said, "Oh wait, you're the atheists." I smiled and said that we were going to sit on the bride's side of the church.

Inside the auditorium I took a front row seat, set up my camera, and waited.

Other media crews began to arrive and set up their cameras as well. I was recognized by some reporters and approached, but I declined to be interviewed on camera until after the meeting was over, and by that time there had ben enough excitement that they didn't really need me.

I had been attending these events for a while. I attended the second sub-committee meeting formed to deal with the banner, and videotaped the school committee meeting that had made the decision to fight the ACLU, despite all costs. There was one police officer at the first event I attended, two at the second. On this night I counted eight police officers (an unsustainable mathematical progression). At least two officers were there to ensure the safety of Jessica and her Taylor.

Before the committee meeting started, and to ensure that the atheists in the audience knew they were in the minority, a group of about 100 people engaged in singing patriotic and religious songs, and even recited and sang the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary. I saw this as a naked attempt to make outsiders and those with a minority opinion feel unwelcome. If the "prayer banner" is really about a historical artifact, why is religious intimidation being used to protect it?

After the School Committee took their places on the stage, Andrea Ianozzi asked everyone to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Though I started the camera a little late note that the audience overly emphasizes the "under God" part of the pledge, even as they mumble through the rest.

This is the exact same kind of bullying tactic that Jessica has been exposed to in her home room at Cranston West. If anyone doubts that the students are learning their bad behavior from the adults in the community, watch this video. This use of the pledge undermines the very reason for having a pledge in the first place. They say "one nation indivisible" but neatly divide the nation into "us" and "them" with their behavior.

It was a sickening display, and a perfect reason to get "under God" out of the Pledge. It was not placed there to unite the country, it was placed there to let those who do not believe in God know that they are a minority with less rights and less importance than the rest of society.

After the School Committee finished some actual, important business on the school budget, the floor was opened to public comments. Per tradition, students are allowed to speak first, on agenda or non-agenda items. The first two students were pro-banner, and urged an appeal. Then Taylor Grenga, a classmate of Jessica Ahlquist, spoke. After she finished, she was booed.

Superintendent Nero said "when they asked me today in the media, I aid we have not set a good example." He admonished the entire community, not just those present. Note also that when Jessica approached the podium, she was addressed by name without having to identify herself. I point this out because I have heard some criticism of her that suggests she is full of herself for assuming that she is famous enough to be recognized. Not the case, as should be obvious. Also, at no point was she gloating here. She simply gave her opinion, and moved on.

After the student comments, the floor was opened to those who wished to speak on agenda items. It was at this point that Chris Young, who once ran for mayor of Providence, and was forced to leave a mayoral debate because he would not let go of a large statue of the Virgin Mary, decided to approach the podium. Note that he is told that he is only to speak on agenda items. But he is "crafty," and like Homer Simpson putting on his reading glasses to mount a legal defense, he dives in:

Virtually incomprehensible.

After another speaker actually spoke on agenda items, there was a short break before comments on non-agenda items began. I was prepared for a long night, but actually it went by pretty quickly. First up to defend the banner was Lisa French, who started shrill and then ended by screaming.

Not to get too political here, but is anyone surprised she supports Ron Paul?

Other speakers stood up to defend the banner, including former mayoral candidate Richard Tomlins, who at least had the decency to call out Lisa French on her shrill behavior. (I am not placing it here, but all the videos can be seen on YouTube, except for one of the pro-banner students who asked me to take his down, which I did because he is a minor. My channel is Atomicsteve.)

The next speaker of note for keeping the prayer up was Pastor Richard Lehe. Trying to strike a conciliatory tone, I feel he rambled a bit and his point was probably lost on both sides. One reason I mention him is because he was given extra time. Public comment was to be limited to three minutes. Lehe took just less than four minutes, even with his Steve Martin-ish turn at playing with the microphone.

Out of fairness I will include my statement here as well. I was very nervous, and mostly wanted to thank the School Committee and the Cranston Police for promptly seeing to Jessica's safety in the wake of the threats made against her. Actually getting up and speaking in front of so hostile a crowd gives you a real appreciation for how brave Taylor and Jessica are. Speaking to large gatherings is difficult when people like you. It's almost impossible when they hate you.

Another banner supporter spoke, speaking of religion and the power of God in a very reasonable, if misguided way. What the people pushing for appeal seem to fail to realize is that the case was lost in large part because they insist not on the historical importance of the banner as an artifact or piece of art, but as a prayer to their Christian God. The fact that the prayer is a Christian Prayer is not in doubt. It is a fact, and prayer's, painted on the wall or recited in class are illegal.

The next speaker was certainly the most reasoned, but I'm biased because he's also a good friend. Daniel Ciora is a lawyer, and a good one. He makes his case here very wisely, and it would behoove the School Committee to consider his words.

Following that small oasis of reason, we entire the wide desert. First up is Kara Russo and then her longtime boyfriend Chris Young. Chris once proposed to Kara during his closing remarks at a Providence Mayoral debate where he didn't try to drag in his Virgin Mary statue. At this meeting they were both relatively restrained.

A voice of reason came shortly afterwords in the form of Kerry Kelaher. She argued that the School Committee should not be wasting money on defending the banner when it could be better spent doing things like educating the children. She argued that this should be looked at as a simple monetary issue. This point angered some in the crowd, as we shall soon see.

Next up came local amateur historian Ron LaRue. He is a man obsessed with a little known book called the New England Primer. I've covered LaRue's previous appearances on this issue here. ( He was also at the state house before Christmas protesting the term "Holiday Tree." But in this appearance, he says something very revealing. He mentions being in contact with Christian minister David Barton, founder of the Christian group Wallbuilders, and a leading proponent of historical revisionism, pseudoscholarship and "outright falsehoods." As Wikipedia states, "His research has been described as flawed by many historians, who dismiss his work as that of "a biased amateur who cherry-picks quotes from history and the Bible." Ron LaRue seems very impressed with Barton, which is why his points seem so odd and convoluted.

With comments over, the audience is asked if anyone else would like to speak. With this invitation, and angered by the comments of previous speaker Kerry Kelaher, Lisa French stormed the stage, pulled money from her pocket, and threw it at the School Committee. I suppose if money is the issue, Lisa wants to solve it my donating a pocket full of ones. She was removed from the meeting by the police. The audience was told that everybody gets one chance to speak. Keep that in mind. One chance to speak.

A few more speakers got up to talk, all of them wanting to appeal the banner decision. Then Pastor Richard Lehe approached the podium, and asked to speak for a second time. Would he be told he could not speak, as Lisa French was? If he persisted, would he be escorted out by police? No. He's a Pastor. A "man of the cloth." Out of deference to his religious stature, the only man allowed to speak twice is Pastor Richard Lehe.

Do we need any more proof that religion is favored over non-religion in Cranston, even at public meetings dealing exactly this issue? I do not believe for one moment that the School Committee was even aware of their favoritism, so natural and ingrained is this idea in their culture and their minds. As if to prove my point, when Oscar Tassoni rises to take his second turn at the podium, he is rebuffed.

There is irony here that both Oscar Tassoni and Lisa French were victims of religiously based discrimination. They are both defending their view of Christian exceptionalism, and are both treated as second class citizens as a direct result of this. Beyond the deference of the School Committee, there is also Lehe's assumption of privilege. He walks up to the podium expecting to be heard. This comes from a lifetime of ministerial experience: He speaks for God, get out of the way, rules be damned.

After the public comments were over the School Committee moved on to other business, continuing their review of the budget. Jessica, Dan, Taylor and a few others were escorted out to our cars by the police. I've never in my life felt the need for a police escort before, and I really appreciated the one I got.


  1. How ignorant can one be? I completely support your cause and hope that you'll win.

    Greetings from The Netherlands.

  2. I already watched the videos when they were uploaded to Youtube, but found your article gave additional insight and context. Thanks for taking the time to share the evenings events, very much appreciated.

  3. Regarding Young, if you hit my YouTube page I have a video of him at the State House where I shout down to him "Hey Chris, the better part of you dribbled down your mother's leg!"

    I bet he remembers me! Found it, I hate YouTube's new interface.

  4. Please don't take one idiot who supports Ron Paul and smear all of his supporters because of her. There are a lot of good people who support Paul, including atheists. There are also idiots that support every political candidate.

    Thanks for sharing information about the meeting. Nice point about how they bent (broke) the rules regarding speaking more than once for the pastor. If you'd really wanted to raise a ruckus, I'd assume you could have made a Point of Order and said "This gentleman has already spoken once, and I believe you have stated that nobody is permitted to speak twice."

    Best wishes for you and your family.

  5. It is so dismaying to watch continued episodes of mob bigotry and religious fanaticism in the US. From a European vantage point it's hard to distinguish the country from Islamic theocracies at times. Hopefully the difference is that the rule of law will win out in your country over mindless ignorance. My warmest thoughts go out to Jessica, her family, the Judge in this case and the Rosa Parks all over America who are trying to defend the Constitution and the right of all your citizens to be treated equally.

  6. In the annals of history, this journalism will be remembered as the definitive proof that Rhode Islanders are fuck nut stupid.