Support the Café

Search our Site

Teen complaint towards prayer banner in public school leads to lawsuit, outrage, and a scholarship

Teen complaint towards prayer banner in public school leads to lawsuit, outrage, and a scholarship

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist complained about a prayer banner hanging in the auditorium at Cranston High School West that referred to “Our Heavenly Father” in July of 2010.

Rene Lynch of the LA Times writes:

School authorities brushed off her complaint, saying the banner was artistic and historic, as it had been hanging there for decades. Ahlquist later joined the American Civil Liberties Union in a suit alleging that the banner made her feel “ostracized and out of place.”

After much legal wrangling, a court ruled that the banner needed to be removed — and an uproar ensued.

The controversy helped Ahlquist, an atheist, collect thousands of friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter.

But it also sparked outrage on behalf of many others who embraced the banner and wanted the school district to stand firm. A state legislator called Ahlquist an “evil little thing.” There were death threats. The financially strapped school district spent tens of thousands on legal fees. And recall threats were lodged against the school board.

The school board dropped the appeal of the decision this past week.

Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association looks at Ahlquist’s journey:

“When I first heard about the issue, I found it very black and white. I assumed everyone would agree that it was a violation.” However, Ahlquist continued, “When I realized that people wanted to keep the prayer and refused to acknowledge that it was unconstitutional, I decided I needed to speak. For me, this has always been something that needed to be done. It’s always strange when people call me a hero. All I’ve ever wanted to do is the right thing.”

In this case, “doing the right thing” has had its costs. The morning after the lawsuit was filed Ahlquist “walked into homeroom and immediately sensed that [her] reputation had changed.” She informed me, “People turned to stare at me and gossiped with their friends. During the Pledge of Allegiance that morning, my classmates turned and yelled ‘UNDER GOD’ at me.” Since then, Ahlquist has faced similar challenges both in and out of school.

The Internet, which in recent years has become a popular outlet for teenage bullying, has once again provided a forum for particularly discriminatory comments. One specific commenter exclaimed, “It was by the grace of God that this despicable little monster of a girl has the freedom to express her anti-beliefs and nationally broadcast her extreme tolerance: the atheist way. I try really hard to be a good Christian, but this is just too much. This is what happens when kids don’t get discipline, and when parents are deadbeats. Boo these people, I hope they lose their homes.”

Ahlquist’s advice to others is “not to be afraid.” Through attending conferences such as the American Humanist Association’s, as well as working with national student groups such as the Secular Student Alliance, Ahlquist has been able to find support for her views. She encourages other young atheists to do the same. “I would advise any young atheists out there to set up a group where nonreligious teens can make friends, do community service projects, and change the negative image that many people have of atheists,” Ahlquist said. “Coming out as an atheist publically is scary, but absolutely necessary. ‘Atheist’ has become such a taboo word that many people see us as evil. It is often difficult to be a minority, but it is very important that we stop hiding and work together. Just remember that you’re not alone!”

Prominent atheists have raised money to present Ahlquist with a scholarship: $44,000 has been collected to date.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

nobody has a right to expect that other people may not show disapproval of the stands that they make

A minor in public school? Being yelled at the (non-disciplined) student body?

Yes, she bloody well SHOULD have a right to expect she won’t be on the receiving end of such abuse! Where are the teachers? Where is the principal? Where are the parents?!

JC Fisher

And where are the pastors of these so-called “Christian” children hurling this kind of abuse?

Bill Dilworth

A correction: I meant to write that if they want to express religious sentiments or pray as a group, they should find some other means to do so rather than misusing the public school system.

Bill Dilworth

Yes, Mr Wingate, how dare Jessica Ahlquist pursue her right to petition the courts for redress after the school brushed off her concerns? How awful to complain about something that was, after all, illegal.

Nope. Not buying it.

Religion simply does not have a devotional place in the public school system. The school was displaying a religious prayer as a corporate statement; it was the school’s prayer, originally written to replace the practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each day. The implication was that it was something you endorsed (or ought to have endorsed) simply by attending classes there.

No one is stopping the students, staff, or faculty from praying on their own. If they want to endorse religious sentiments, pray, celebrate the Sacraments, wave a lulav and etrog, or whatever, let them go home or to a house of worship to do it, or let them enroll in a religious school.

The school tried to argue that it wasn’t religious at all, but artistic and historic, which is utter bull – which your comment and the outrage that accompanied the banner’s removal proved. People clearly saw it as an endorsement of the majority religion. The majority religion shouldn’t have – indeed, does not need – State endorsement. And it was founded by someone who cautioned us about making a spectacle of our religion and to pray in secret.

Further, the horror of the mob’s reaction isn’t the fact that they expressed their displeasure, but that they treated her hatefully in the name of Christianity. I am astounded that that detail escaped you.

The banner was a tawdry misuse of religion in the interests of tribal identity, and it benefits everyone – including Christians – to be rid of it. Thank God for Jessica Ahlquist.

Murdoch Matthew

It’s not one nation under God, it’s one nation under the Constitution. It’s the Church under God, and perhaps the individual. (I don’t feel comfortable pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth anyway.)

The phrase “under God” was added to the pledge in 1954 more in a spirit of anti-Communism than of religious fervor (not really appropriate in civic settings). It’s part of the constant drive to blur separation of church and state.

Apps 55753818692 1675970731 F785b701a6d1b8c33f0408

“During the Pledge of Allegiance that morning, my classmates turned and yelled ‘UNDER GOD’ at me.”

Such obnoxious behavior from self professed “Christians”.

Having had many atheist friends, with whom I’ve shared many a pleasant, productive and enlightening conversation,

I have to agree that the banner was inappropriate for a public school. Separation of church and state protects far more than it harms.

-Cullin R. Schooley

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café