Give 16 year old Jessica Ahlquist an “A” for “chutzpa” for being the successful lead plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against a Cranston Rhode Island school district that forced the district to cover up an eight foot high prayer in the school auditorium. The prayer had been there for 49 years and in fact was specifically put up in response to the Supreme Court decision which banned prayer in public schools. Her reward for giving her community a tough civics lesson: residents have crowded school board meetings to demand an appeal; Jessica has received online threats; and the police have to escort her at school.
State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show. Three separate florists refused to deliver her roses sent from a national atheist group. The group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights.
Quick facts: The prayer, eight feet tall, is papered onto the wall in the Cranston West auditorium, near the stage. It has hung there since 1963, when a seventh grader wrote it and that year’s graduating class presented it to the school as a gift. It was a year after a landmark Supreme Court ruling barring organized prayer in public schools. I actually live in the Herricks School District which is where the school ban prayer emanated from yet I bet my community would have the same reaction nevertheless.
Here’s the prayer:
“Our Heavenly Father grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically -to be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers – to be honest with ourselves as well as with others – Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win – teach us the value of true friendship- help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West – Amen.”
This seems like an easy fix to me. Take out “our Heavenly Father” and “Amen” and change the first sentence to “May we pledge each day to do our best . . .” and you have a secular pledge that does not establish any religion or faith. For those who can’t see what’s wrong with the prayer as is, just imagine that your community over the years became predominantly one religion and the leaders of that community decided to put up an eight foot high prayer to Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Wicca, Buddhism, pick your choice. Still think its ok? Of course its not and neither is this.
Regardless of what you think, this young woman should not be vilified but applauded for having the courage of her convictions and a strong belief in the law to be willing to put herself out there in a very heavily Catholic city like Cranston RI. While most 16 year old girls are doing anything and everything to “fit in,” Jessica Ahlquist is doing all she can to stand out and be the “other” – Perhaps the toughest teen archetype to survive healthily.
Legally, the case was a no brainer. Huge prayer to a Heavenly Father in a public school auditorium. How did this last 40 plus years in the first place? That no one on the school board or in the community ever thought it was unconstitutional or did anything about it is mind-boggling and proof of how like-minded and similar everyone in that community must be. It is a testament to how difficult it must have been for Ms. Ahlquist to take this stand.
Jessica says that she has been an atheist since age 10, when her mother became, seriously ill and her prayers went unanswered. In the NY times article covering the case, she said the prayer was an affront: “It seemed like it was saying, every time I saw it, ‘You don’t belong here.’” She understood at 16 that this feeling was exactly what the Constitution was meant to protect: that the government had chosen someone else’s religion over your own beliefs and that you were not welcome in your own community. When she was asked about how she felt about the folks who wanted the prayer to remain up she stated to the Times:
“I’ve never been asked this before,” she said. A pause, and then: “It’s almost like making a child get a shot even though they don’t want to. It’s for their own good. I feel like they might see it as a very negative thing right now, but I’m defending their Constitution, too.”
I doubt her community will feel that way. In fact, it will be interesting to see the “strict constructionists” argue out of the other side of their mouths that this is why our country is going to hell in a hand basket. Of course, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ben Franklin would all side with Jessica on this one.
It’s ironic that Jessica is actually exhibiting what it means to have true faith in something. She is merely practicing her own brand of religion, I call it “Fundamentalist Constitutionalism.”