On the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

On the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

Local attorney takes on the ACLU in defense of his high school

The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to sue Cranston High School West in Rhode Island — warning that resisting the no-religion agenda of the ACLU can be extremely expensive.

Attorney Cavanagh

So, a local alumnus who happens to be a First Amendment attorney stepped up and said he’d defend the school for free. Joseph V. Cavanagh Jr. told the Cranston school board that he wouldn’t charge his alma mater a cent — and furthermore, he had lined up financial backing from the Becket Fund, Washington, D.C., public interest group dedicated to defending religious expression.  The fund is named after history’s Thomas Becket who died rather than give in to King Henry II’s attempts to manipulate the church.


How had the school violated students’ civil liberties? Since 1963, a banner has born this message, written 40 years ago by a member of the Student Council:

Our Heavenly Father,
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.

The ACLU cannot tolerate such public references to “Our Heavenly Father” or the public utterance of “Amen” — never mind that banishing such religious speech is in itself a violation of civil liberties, a principle on which Rhode Island was founded.


“If he were here today, Roger Williams, who founded Providence in 1636, might think he was back in tyrannical Massachusetts, from which he had fled,” writes columnist Robert Knight for the Daily Caller online newsite.

The ACLU first threatened Cranston  school officials in July 2010 with a threatening letter from the ACLU of Rhode Island’s Executive Director Peter Brown. He said stating that one person was “extremely concerned and troubled” by the banner. The school board discussed the letter, then on March 7 in a public meeting attended by 150 residents, voted 4 to 3 to keep the banner. The Providence Journal newspaper notes that the board also considered a petition with more than 4,000 names backing the banner.


Cranston High School West

In response, the ACLU warned the school that fighting the matter would be expensive and unwise considering “the school district’s ongoing and severe budgetary problems, which has led to layoffs and program cuts.”

“Basically, ‘We’ll make you even poorer! You can’t afford this!’ the ACLU screamed,” writes Knight.


So Cranston grad Cavanagh stepped forward. A Harvard graduate who got his law degree from Boston College, he is the managing partner and head of civil litigation and trial practice for the local law firm Blish and Cavanagh.  He has worked on First Amendment cases for local print media and broadcast companies and was named a Rhode Island and New England Super Lawyer from 2007 to 2010.

A precedent must be set, says Cavanagh, who is ready to take the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And community leaders are behind him.

The offending banner


“The desire to scrub every reference to God and religious faith from public life, including our schools, is tiresome and irritating,” said Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin. “And in fact it creates another pseudo-religion, secularism, that other people are forced to endure. The ACLU should avoid these silly little squabbles and move on to other more important issues where civil liberties are really threatened.”

The ACLU has a historical hostility toward what the Declaration of Independence describes as “certain unalienable rights” with which Americans are “endowed by their Creator.” The ACLU brags that it is ‘nation’s guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.”


That is, unless you are a Christian.

The ACLU insists that “the message of the Establishment Clause is that religious activities must be treated differently from other activities to ensure against governmental support for religion.”

“Utter hokum,” says Knight. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause says nothing of the sort. Its message is abundantly clear, requiring severe distortion to twist it to fit the ACLU’s agenda. It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Making a high school in Rhode Island take down a 40-year-old banner made by a student is exactly that — a violation of the guarantee of “free exercise” of our faith.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment joanne

    I am thankful there are still people like Mr. Cavanaugh. It has all gotten too much in this country. People are so over sensitive to what is good. A positive message to our children, yes please take it down? What is wrong with us. I am sure if it had some offensive message stated it would be ignored and laughed off but, mention God or Jesus in a positive statement and not a sladerous one, all ears become offended. Even if you do not want to believe he is the Saviour of man kind (which I do) what is wrong with his teachings and modeling his behavior of love, kindness and tolerance for what is different. We need something better for our children not what is being offered in TV, Movies, Games and alike. Its a Banner for crying out loud with a positive message!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Debbie

    I agree with all of you in support of Mr Cavanagh. I, too, am really tired of my rights,as a Christian, always being squashed. I heard an elderly lady say “God Bless to you” to a young mother in a grocery store when she sneezed.The young mother turned and told her to “Mind your own business.” I once heard a comedian that said. “If you do not believe on the boogey man, you don’t chase him from under beds or out of the closets, right? SO if you do not believe in God, why are you trying to remove Him from everything, when after all, to you, He does not exist! How can something you “KNOW” is not true and does not exist, bother you so much?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sue

    The ACLU must be desperate for something to get rid of. The attorneys and staff for the ACLU need to be ‘de-briefed’ to get these idiotic ideas out of their heads. They could do a lot of real good for our country, but instead they yammer about something that upsets 1 person!?! What a waste of time and money. Maybe they are just afraid to take on the big problems so they make an issue of a small problem or in this case, something that really isn’t a problem at all. I applaud Attorney Cavanagh and the school district for taking a stand; it seems he is well qualified to help the high school. I am praying that his efforts are successful!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment William

    Congratulations to attourney Cavanagh for having the courage to stand up against the ACLU.A group which I have read receive funding from us Tax payers.Can’t prove this is true but if it is they should be defunded as they do not represent the opinion of us all actually they are against most everything relating to rights except for those which oppose Christianity.What an oxy-moron(ACLU)and (Civil Liberties)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Kitty

    Not only was the ACLU denying free speech and civil liberties by imposing restrictions, they also tried to blackmail the school by telling them that fighting the matter would be expensive. I find that very disturbing, especially as they bill themselves as “a guardian of our nation’s liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.” (taken from their website)

    Doesn’t sound like they are following their charter.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Hilda

    My religious freedom is being stepped on every time the ACLU starts to tell us that we are are upsetting people who are not believers in anything except themselves. They can state their opinions, but so can I.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Warren Pons

    God bless Mr. Cavanagh!!! He’s doing what the ACLU should be doing!! If this so called, guardian, (ACLU)
    is protecting us, then why do they threaten us??? They are nothing but wwhat we are trying to fight in our schools, and on the internet, a bunch of bullies!! If they send these types of messeges to people, and organizations, then aren’t they in violation of our new law about this!! Telling the school, and all involved, that this WILL be expensive, and unwise is nothing more than a threat!! Now, instead of our government protecting us, they are threatening us through a cheap action, and organization (ACLU)!! Come “Judgement Day”, I would hate to have worked for them!!! Hitler, and a few others in history, did the same thing to the Jewish people, and anyone that supported them!! This is why Lybia, and Syria are rioting in the streets, because of someone in power taking away their rights, and being bullies!!!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment jackie

    First of all i would like to say thanks to the scholl for having this banner and not caving in to the demand for it to be removed,secondly,to the lawyer may GOD richly bless u for this. And i hope ya’ll hang in ther we need to hold up a morale banner for our kids now more then ever but especially now a days and not to quit just because someone says take it down stop quit i dont like it. please don’t cave into the presssure keep up the good work.
    i commend ya’ll and again say thanks.

    and let me just say this i say it loud i say it proud GOD BLESS AMERICA MY HOME SWEET HOME

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Everett Barber

    At every turn there is someone just waiting to tare down our Constitutional Rights. The ACLU is such an origination all they care about is doing what they can to tare our rights down. They have a good helper in Obama he is also trying to do what ever he can to destroy America and the people of it. God Bless Joseph Cavanagh and all the others like him who are willing to take on the ACLU. God Bless America, Amen

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sharon

    Joseph V. Cavanagh Jr. fight the good fight of faith. God’s blessing upon you and your family. Now more than ever, we need to do what we know to be right without fear of reprisal.

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