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Student sues public high school over prayer

Correction appended.

Jessica Ahlquist, a sophomore at Cranston High School West, filed suit early this month against her school because it refused to remove a prayer painted on the wall of its auditorium.

At her high school — which Ahlquist described as "predominantly Catholic" — she and a friend first noticed a prayer painted on the wall in the auditorium about a year ago. "I thought, ‘I don't think that belongs here,'" Ahlquist said. "But we weren't about to say anything as freshmen, and I was still kind of in the closet with my atheism."

Ahlquist did research on the topic and discovered the presence of a prayer in a public school could be illegal, she said. She then discussed it with her father, who asked her if she wanted to take action. During this time, a mother of two children in the Cranston public school system filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU wrote to the school asking for the prayer's removal, and the school subsequently established a subcommittee, made up of community members, to evaluate the ACLU's demands. The ACLU threatened to sue, Ahlquist said.

 Ahlquist attended the subcommittee's first meeting and told the group, "As an atheist, I have the same rights as any religious child to feel like I belong here."

"I knew atheists weren't really liked, but I didn't expect the gasp that I heard," she told The Herald. She described the meetings as "hate-filled."

"People were really immature and rude," Ahlquist said. "Full-grown adults were trying to make me feel ostracized and ridiculed."

Administrators at the high school did not return request for comment.

Ahlquist quickly began receiving attention from local media. "It was all over the Internet and (the Providence Journal) — it was kind of crazy and weird for me," she said. Soon after, Ahlquist received an email from the ACLU asking if she would be a plaintiff in the case against her school. The original plaintiff "backed out because she didn't want her children to be targeted," Ahlquist said.

"When I got that email, there was no doubt in my mind," Ahlquist said. She wanted to join the lawsuit. Though she initially feared the reactions of her peers, she "didn't think for a minute that was a good enough reason not to do it," she said.

At a second meeting months later, the subcommittee voted 4-3 in favor of keeping the prayer and fighting the ACLU. One member who voted to remove the prayer said she "wished she could keep it up, but she knew they would lose to the ACLU," Ahlquist said.

"There is a strong, persuasive precedent" for the case, said Lynette Labinger, one of Ahlquist's two attorneys. Both Labinger and Ahlquist cited the court case Lee v. Weisman, in which a Providence parent sued a school over the inclusion of a prayer in its graduation ceremonies. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the prayer was unconstitutional.

Ahlquist's case was filed in early April, Labinger said, and the school has until May 20 to file a response.

Labinger called it a "considerably daunting task" for a sophomore to take part in such a lawsuit. "I'm very much in awe of her maturity," Labinger added.

"I'm certainly optimistic about this," Alhquist said. "Our case is too strong — we have more evidence than the other side could possibly even lie about having. There are so many other cases like mine."

Ahlquist, who is the only active plaintiff along with her father, because she is under 18, plans to continue to spread awareness as she waits for the school's response.

"There are so many more atheists than people think there are," she said. "Three friends have recently told me that they are, and I think it's a really important thing that atheists can feel comfortable in school and in society."

After Ahlquist was contacted by a high school group coordinator of the nationwide Secular Student Alliance, she began to investigate starting a secular group at her own high school for atheists to come together and "realize they're not completely alone."

"It's more that just taking the prayer down. It's more than the tiny little issue of what hangs on a wall in a public school," she said. "It's about people being willing to fight for what is right and do the American thing."

A previous version of this article misattributed a quote to Lynette Labinger. The Herald regrets the error.


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