Rhode Island Banner Battle: Student Jessica Ahlquist Stands Up For The Constitution

Disputes over religion in public schools bring out the worst in some people.

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a famous decision in a school prayer case called Abington School District v. Schempp. The justices, with only one dissenter, ruled school-sponsored and coercive programs of prayer and Bible reading in public schools unconstitutional.

That same year for some reason, students at a high school in Cranston, R.I., decided to create an 8-foot-tall banner containing an official school prayer and hang it in the school auditorium.

Maybe it was an act of defiance against the court. Maybe the students and administrators weren’t even thinking about what the court said. In any case, the prayer banner has remained on the wall for nearly 50 years.

And now a brave young woman is working to get it removed. Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year-old junior at Cranston High School West, knew as soon as she entered the school as a freshman that the prayer didn’t belong there.

Ahlquist was at first reluctant to take on the matter, but eventually she contacted the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit on her behalf. School officials dug in, calling the prayer part of the school’s history and tradition.

They also lined up some outside help. A conservative Catholic-oriented legal group called the Becket Fund is representing the school. A federal judge is expected to rule tomorrow on a request for a preliminary injunction.

“It’s a cutting-edge case that raises some important issues,” Joseph V. Cavanagh Jr., one of the lawyers representing the school, told the Providence Journal.

Actually, it’s not. There’s nothing “cutting edge” about what the school is doing here. School officials are just violating the First Amendment and have been for five decades. As has been noted, the Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored religion in the Schempp case from 1963 (and in Engel v. Vitale, a case handed down a year earlier).

The prayer in question begins with a plea to “Our Heavenly Father” and concludes with the word, “Amen.” It is even headlined “School Prayer”! (Hemant Mehta, a blogger known as the “Friendly Atheist,” has a picture of the banner here.) It’s an obvious attempt by the school to promote religion.

The school officials’ refusal to correct this problem is bad enough. What’s worse about cases like this is the reaction they spark from some members of the public. As the Journal noted, since Ahlquist filed the suit, “[S]tudents and adults have called her a ‘stupid atheist,’ an ACLU tool, a witch and a ‘media whore.’ They’ve also threatened her through e-mails or at school, she says. A former classmate told her that, if she knew what he really thought of her, she would kill herself, she says.”

But this gutsy young woman is not backing down. She has her own blog, tweets about the case and has created a Facebook page to bring attention to the issue. I admire her moxie!

The law is squarely on Ahlquist’s side. Public schools have no business promoting religion or encouraging students to pray or not pray. Such decisions belong in the private realm, at home and at houses of worship.

Let’s hope the federal court agrees tomorrow.

P.S. The founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, was a strong advocate of church-state separation who abhorred any mixing of the two. Old Roger must be turning over in his grave!