R.I. Teen Faces Community Backlash after Courtroom Win over Prayer Banner

Article excerpt

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. …