R.I. Teen Faces Community Backlash After Courtroom Win Over Prayer Banner

A Rhode Island high school student who filed a successful lawsuit over a prayer banner hanging in her public school’s auditorium is facing a wave of criticism, abuse and even threats.

Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year-old student at Cranston High School West in Cranston, R.I., challenged the banner in court, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. The official school prayer, which has been hanging in the school since 1963, is 8 feet long and opens with “Our Heavenly Father” and concludes with the word, “Amen.” It is even headlined “School Prayer.”

In a 40-page decision issued Jan. 11, U.S. District Judge Ronald R. Lagueux ruled in Ahlquist’s favor. The judge dismissed school officials’ claims that Ahlquist, who identifies as an atheist, had no right to challenge the banner. He then went on to explain why the banner is unconstitutional.

“No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that,” Lagueux observed in the Ahlquist v. City of Cranston ruling.

Lagueux traced the history of the case, noting that Ahlquist came under attack as soon as she raised the issue. Residents packed school board meetings to denounce her.

Several members of the seven-person school board went out of their way to discuss their personal religious views as they explained why they were voting to retain the banner. Things got so bad at one meeting that police officers had to escort Ahlquist out of the room.

To Lagueux, this was evidence that the board had clearly embarked on a religious crusade. He noted that “the tenor of the School Committee’s open meeting at times resembled a religious revival.”

Added the judge, “The Cranston School Committee and its subcommittee held four open meetings to consider the fate of the Mural. At those meetings a significantly lopsided majority of the speakers spoke passionately, and in religious terms, in favor of retaining the Prayer Mural. Various speakers read from the Bible, spoke about their personal religious convictions, threatened [Ahlquist] with damnation on Judgment Day and suggested that she will go to hell. The atmosphere was such that the Superintendent of Schools felt compelled to discuss his own religious beliefs at length when he made his recommendation to the Committee that they vote to retain the Prayer Mural.

“This is precisely the sort of ‘civic divisiveness’ that the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause cases repeatedly warn against,” continued Lagueux, who was appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan. “When focused on the Prayer Mural, the activities and agenda of the Cranston School Committee became excessively entangled with religion, exposing the Committee to a situation where a loud and passionate majority encouraged it to vote to override the constitutional rights of a minority.”

The community has not reacted well to the ruling. Ahlquist was viciously attacked by commenters on the website of the Providence Journal and on other websites and blogs. A Twitter user said “this girl honestly needs to be punched in the face.” An anonymous commenter even posted Ahlquist’s home address on the Journal’s website. She has received threats of physical harm, and Cranston police said they are investigating some threats directed at her on the Internet.

State Rep. Peter Polombo (D-Cranston) on Jan. 16 called Alhquist “an evil little thing,” a “clapping seal” and a “pawn star” on a talk radio show, according to a report on CranstonPatch.com.

In addition, when the Freedom From Religion Foundation tried to send Ahlquist flowers, it had trouble finding a local florist willing to do the job.

“We refused the order because we really don’t want to cross lines,” said Raymond Santilli, owner of Flowers by Santilli. “If I send flowers there, somebody may get upset with us and retaliate to us.”

Another florist who refused an order for Ahlquist, Marina Plowman of Twins Florist, agreed. “I just chose not to do it,” she said, according to the WJAR-TV. “Nothing personal against her or anybody, it was a choice that I made. It was my right to do that, so I did.”

Ahlquist said she might stay away from school and explore cyber learning. But she added that she has no regrets.

“Even if lots of kids in school hate you, even if there’s nasty comments on the Internet, it’s important to stand up for something you believe in,” Ahlquist said. “I could have said nothing, but I did what I believe in and I’m glad I did what I did. I’ve had to deal with a lot of harassment and negative flak from people who disagree with my views and opinions, but it’s all worth it.”

Blogger Hemant Mehta has started a scholarship fund for Ahlquist that at press time had raised nearly $38,000. In addition, in late January the Rhode Island ACLU announced that it would seek to recover $173,000 in attorneys’ fees from the school district.