Tensions surrounding a lawsuit in Cranston have escalated after Rhode Island District Federal Court Judge Ronald Lagueux ordered the removal of a school’s prayer banner Jan. 11.
Jessica Ahlquist, a junior at Cranston High School West and a self-proclaimed atheist, sued her school in April, arguing that the prayer banner hanging in the school’s auditorium represented a formal government recognition of religion in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After the Cranston School Committee voted to keep the banner, Ahlquist partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union to bring her argument before the U.S. District Court in October.
After threats were made against Ahlquist, the Cranston Police Department increased patrols at her high school.
“The threats just show how immature some people can be,” Ahlquist said. “I don’t see any of these as people who are bringing forth valid arguments.”
The city must now decide whether to appeal the case. Though support for an appeal is high, the state of Rhode Island requires the defeated party to pay the victors’ legal fees. The school board already fears they will have to pay $50,000 to Ahlquist’s ACLU legal team, according to a Jan. 16 WPRI.com article. The school committee has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision.
The class of 1963, the school’s first graduating classes, presented Cranston West with the eight-by-four-foot banner. David Bradley, a member of the graduating class of 1965, wrote the prayer. Bradley has resurfaced during this debate to express his antipathy for the court’s ruling. Aside from one parent’s complaint in 2010, the banner has hung uncontested in the auditorium for almost 50 years.
Though Cranston Mayor Allan Fung said he personally wants the banner to stay where it is, “given the likelihood of a success with the financial implications that could occur,” he said he cannot recommend the committee move forward with an appeal.
“This isn’t about religion anymore — this is about the Constitution,” Ahlquist said at a school committee meeting this week, opposing a potential challenge to Lagueux’s decision. “Religion does not have a place in a school. This country was not founded on the ideas of Christianity. … It was founded on the idea of religious freedom, and if you really want to defend that then you will remove the prayer.”
School committee member Michael Traficante said that the banner contains less religious imagery than several other facets of government institutions. He compared the prayer on the banner to the non-denominational prayer that the U.S. Congress says before beginning each session. Since the words do not denote any specific religion, Traficante said he thinks the Court should have let the prayer stay.
Opponents of the banner’s removal argue the school does not maintain the banner for religious purposes, but rather because it is a part of the school’s tradition and history. Fung said the judge’s ruling “misses the historical and traditional position of that banner.”
Though most of the discourse surrounding the topic has held a civil tone, some members of the community have used harsh rhetoric and even attacked Ahlquist. Politicians, radio talk show hosts and religious leaders have all been a part of the discourse, often adding fuel to an already simmering fire.
Rhode Island State Rep. Peter Palumbo, D-Cranston, called Ahlquist an “evil little thing” on the John DePetro Show, a local talk radio program. The Providence Journal reported Jan. 13 that the Cranston Police were investigating threats made against Ahlquist. She later confronted DePetro on Twitter, where the two fired back and forth at each other.
At least three florists have refused the requests of the Freedom from Religion Foundation to deliver a dozen roses to Ahlquist in demonstration of their support for her cause, according to the foundation’s press release. One of the florists agreed to send the flowers but cancelled after a number of patrons called and threatened to stop using their services. The foundation has since filed a formal complaint with the State of Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights.
The foundation also established a $10,000 Atheists in Foxholes Support Fund to provide “scholarships and assistance to persons who exhibit bravery in furthering the cause (of atheism).” Ahlquist will be the fund’s first recipient.
A blog called the Friendly Atheist showed its support by establishing a college fund for Ahlquist, which now boasts over $27,000 in donations from over 1,000 different individual donors. “When you hear how much she’s going through, people are appalled,” said Herman Mehta, the founder of the site. Mehta was inspired to see a “young girl talking so articulately about why this banner should not be there.”
“It’s really amazing. For a long time, I didn’t know these organizations existed. I had no idea that these people were out there,” Ahlquist said. “Coming out of this, I have more friends and more support.”
But the Internet has also fostered many attacks against Ahlquist. A blog whose founders call themselves “atheists in a small southern town” compiled tweets criticizing Ahlquist. One read, “May that little, evil atheist teenage girl and that judge BURN IN HELL!” Another tweet purportedly by a classmate of Ahlquist read, “Honestly I think the juniors are the most mad about the banner thing because of all us actually know the psycho (expletive).”
Ahlquist has developed her own following across social media and the Internet. She has over 10,000 followers on Twitter and several Facebook groups are enlisting support for her case. The group “We Support Jessica Ahlquist” boasts almost 5,000 likes.
The story has received local and national coverage. The Journal has featured the sto
ry on its front page at least six times in the past two weeks. The Huffington Post has run multiple stories concerning the lawsuit. Ahlqiust, who is 16, also has her own Wikipedia page, where she is described as an “American civil liberties campaigner.”
The banner is currently hanging in the school’s auditorium, but the school has covered it while the committee deliberates on whether it should appeal the court decision.