Heroine: 16 year-old student battles school district officials and wins

 

Image: Jessica Ahlquist, 16, in Cranston, R.I.

16 year-old Jessica Ahlquist is making headlines around the world after she successfully sued her school district to remove a prayer poster from her high school, this month. The sophomore at Cranston High School in Cranston, RI has received death threats and requires police escorts going to and from campus.

This all follows a ruling by a federal judge this month that the poster, which has hung in the school for 49 years, is unconstitutional, violating “the principle of government neutrality in religion.”

Currently, the poster still hangs in the school, a tarp covering it while an appeal is in the works at the school board to challenge the ruling of the federal judge. It stands eight-feet tall, and says the following:

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.

So, full disclosure here: I consider myself a devout Christian. I’m a member of a wonderful church. I pray, I fast, I meditate on the word, and I have a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ that I share with friends who have the same beliefs. That’s called fellowship.

School or any government institution is not the place for religion. It is not the place for organized prayer. It is not church.

The sheer hypocrisy of those attacking Ms. Ahlquist is staggering. If this were a discussion on posting the tenets of Islam in the same school, could you imagine the outcry against it? But even more than that, the actions of these people are indefensible.

Death threats? Social ostracizing? Even three florists refused in the past week to deliver roses to the young woman bought for her by leading religious freedom organizations.

State Representative Peter G. Palumbo referred to Ms. Ahlquist as “a evil little thing” on a local radio show. Wow, takes a lot of courage to pick on a 16 year-old student, bro. Good job.

Jessica, I tried to find you on Facebook, but not surprisingly, I wasn’t able to send you a message. You probably shut it off because of the death threats, so I sincerely hope you come across this.

Keep doing what you’re doing. As a Christian, I’m humbled by your courage, and as a human being, I wish to emulate it. It would seem you have more integrity in your pinky finger than most of these folks do in their entire body.

I stand with you, and rest assured, I’m not the only Christian who does.

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50 thoughts on “Heroine: 16 year-old student battles school district officials and wins

  1. Shane says:

    I also stand with you in regards to this matter.

  2. reverendtyler says:

    Good for her! I wish I had her clarity of thought, as well as her courage, when I was her age.

  3. reverendtyler says:

    Reblogged this on Reverend Tyler's Blog.

  4. I’d almost agree BUT nothing in that prayer;a)even denotes a religion b)yes, it acknowledges A supreme being, but doesn’t state WHICH ONE, and c)does nothing to evangelize truly, but instead supports goals and values that ANYONE can aspire to. In fact, I’d fail to see anything there that anyone, even atheist could possibly find offensive. Its much less a prayer than it is a “call to action” really. Not to mention the fact, yes, the constitution gives freedom of religion, it does NOT however, grant freedom FROM being exposed to it. Dont care to participate in it, then dont! You have that right. Dont take away MY right to though. Show me where she is being FORCED to believe in something she does not, and we’ll talk.

    • greenday19 says:

      She IS being ‘forced’ to walk by an see this poster every day. You may say that she doesn’t HAVE to look at it.
      By that measure, I could tell you to ‘simply look away’ when I post a Nazi Swastika in my business, or PUBLIC MEETING PLACE.
      There is NO PLACE for anything calling for Prayer or anything quasi religious in ANY public building, etc.
      As was said, just imagine the outcry if it were the tenets of Islam were posted ANYWHERE in any U.S. public building!

    • Tom Asby says:

      It’s not that they are being forced to, that’s not the point. It’s being supplied and cared for by the government, thereby implying that the government is in some way advocating for one religion or set of religious beliefs over another. That’s not the job of government, that is the job of the individual. Each one of us needs to decide for ourselves what set of beliefs we choose to have faith in and being EXPOSED to it in a setting that is required by the government and financed by all people (taxes), the government has no business selecting just one set of beliefs to advocate, such as the belief in a supreme being or overarching deity.
      I’m a Bible believing Christian and I’ve found nowhere in the Bible that says that we have to make sure that others are EXPOSED to anything but an attitude of love from us. As a matter of fact, Jesus spoke against praying in public with flowery speeches. Christians, among other organizations, need to get over the idea that we somehow need to tell others what we believe. Show it in your everyday life. Be different, let people ask YOU why you’re different.

      • I’m a devout follower of Jesus Christ….and I also agree completely with what you said, however…if you simply left out the “Dear God, and pray and Amen (that’s 4 words, it would simply be a thoughtful statement about ethics and human deceency. Why must everyone make sooo much of so little. I doubt very few students,(after 49 years) actually care or are affected by it whatsoever.In other words..”Much ado about nothing”

    • Jim says:

      Angela, while the words in the body of the ‘prayer’ focuses on generic, non-religious activities it is in the salutation, that this becomes clearly a Christian prayer. The phrase “Our Heavenly Father” is a uniquely Christian way of addressing God in prayer. And by the way, I am a Baptist pastor.

    • gluadys says:

      First, the very idea of a supreme being is religious. The address “Our heavenly Father” not only makes it a prayer, but makes it a distinctively Christian prayer. The fact that it is given such a place of prominence in the school means a government agency is not only promoting religion, but a particular brand of religion.

      However, Guy’s suggestion that the text be kept but the salutation and Amen removed seems sensible to me. Has anyone asked Jessica about this? Has anyone asked non-Christian members of the community?

      Finally, no matter what one thinks of the prayer, the actions of the community toward her are indefensible and that is where the focus of attention should be.

    • Tara says:

      (A) “Father” is used in both Judaism and Islam for prayers but “Our Heavenly Father” is truly a Christian usage. All three of those are monotheistic religions, which means that you leave out Buddhism, Shintoism, and other religious that are not monotheistic. That’s obviously in addition to the atheists and agnostics, who would not pray to any Father or Father in Heaven or Heavenly Father or Mother or other associated Deity. That means this prayer does denote religion, and while it might not say WHICH ONE, it clearly indicates which ones are not included.

      (C) If you wanted it to be something ANYONE can aspire to, you would simply say: “WE PLEDGE each day 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. WE PROMISE to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win. WE SEEK the value of true friendship and to always conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.” *That’s* universal values. Asking for God to provide these things is a religious value. It’s a religious value I have, but it is not shared by my many atheist and agnostic friends.

      And why does your right to have a prayer – which does not need to be hung on a school wall – trump her right to not feel excluded by her school? It certainly doesn’t. Your exercise of your right to worship in this particular manner requires her to feel excluded; her exercise of her rights should never affect your willingness or desire or ability to pray for these very values.

    • Linda says:

      Angela, you are wrong. AND it is against the law to have anything like that posted in a public school. What would you say if it began, “Praise Allah”, or “Dear Flying Spaghetti Monster, Please guide us through this day”. Would either of those be okay with you to have posted on a school wall that your tax dollars paid for?

      You are free to practice your religion. However, your teachers, principals and school officials are not free to assume that every student WANTS to practice with you. Place stickers on your notebooks. Wear a shirt that lets everyone know how you feel. But do not paint a wall in a public school with ANY kind of prayer!!!!!

    • Kathryn Minshew says:

      I completely agree with Angela Keddell. The defining statement is the last sentence. Rather than ask students to bring credit to God, it plainly states “bring credit to Cranston High School West.

    • Angela, “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen” are traditional Christian expressions. These are well known Christian expressions and can not be mistaken for generalized statements, They are clearly religious sentiments.
      While the contents in between are not specifically Christian in nature and may even be considered good moral behaviors, the beginning and ending words mark the poster as clearly Christian. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    • sale& pepper 420 says:

      Yes. I didn’t see anything that said you have to stop and look at it. Even in school we were asked, they were never made to do what they did not believe in. We the christen in side us does not make anyone stop and believe what we do. That on the wall has been in place for 49yrs. No One has said any thing before why now. Why do we give up our Rights and they win.

      • suze19107 says:

        Dear Sale & Pepper 420,

        You are NOT being asked to give up any of your rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights. You however, are asking others to give up theirs.

        You have the right to pray as you choose, to the G-d of your choice. That is between you and your maker. However, it is UNconstitutional to force others in a public building supported by public dollars to pray your or anyone else’s G-d.

        When did religion become a spectator sport? When did religion become something to wear and not about how you live your life? Death threats?! Refusal of services?!
        How very “Christain” of you.

      • Tara says:

        Because as soon as there becomes a conflict a rights – your right to worship publicly and her right to not have to pray or be subjected to worship – we have to look at what way can best accommodate both beliefs. Your right to pray is not infringed by taking down the public prayer. You can say the exact same prayer every day 100 times a day and you can even organize a school prayer group (if it’s actually organized by the students) to meet to pray this exact prayer. What you can’t do is hang a sign that suggests that every member of the school should be saying that prayer so that it clearly suggests to the others that don’t agree with this belief system that they are ‘lesser’ students.

      • suze19107 says:

        This is not about accommodation. This is about the law and the right of every citizen in this country to worship or not as they plase. If you want to pray in school that is what parochial schools are all about. Almost every denomination has one or more in your area.

        Pray in your church, your car, your home. Please by all means live by the tennents of your religion– lead your “Christian Life”, but understand we are a country that accepts the indiviual’s right to pray as we choose and not all of us choose to be Christians.

        I have read every bible available- new testament, the old one. I have read the Koran and the Torah. EVERY one of those books say repeatedly that you should treat others as you would want to be treated. My simple question is— why are so many “Good Christians” the ones responsible for the death threats, the taunts and hate mail?

        I am not a chrisitan. How would you feel if I made you walk by a poster everyday that espoused my religion? How would you feel if my prayer was in Hindu, Herbrew or Farsi?
        If it spoke to Allah, Vishnu or someone else?

        DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU.

    • Dan says:

      It’s more than just a problem of her being forced to see it. When a government owned building displays something that has words like “Our Heavenly Father” on it, it is a government endorsement of a specific god. You say that it never even denotes a religion- that’s patently false. Just because it doesn’t say “Our Lutheran Heavenly Father” or “Our Episcopal Heavenly Father”, doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely clear that it means “Our Christian Heavenly Father”. Any Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist student at that school would instantly recognize that. And as this post points out, if the prayer said “Blessed Allah” at the top instead, something tells me you would be less apt to defend it.

      Ironically, you’re right that the body of the prayer is not offensive. As a matter of fact, all the school would have to do would be to re-post it as the school “meditation” or “motto” without the words “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen”, and they’d be totally in the clear. Little Christian kids could still pray it if they want, and little atheist kids could just look at the ideas it represents, and take it as they will. What’s wrong with that?

    • Michael says:

      Angela, my belief is that it is Blasphemy and a giant insult to the Lord to have His name (“Heavenly Father”) on a wall poster. Wether or not you can “see anything there” that anyone “could possibly find offensive” is not the point. You do not get to be the arbitor of what anyone finds offensive. A school is a public place, supported by my tax dollars. I am entitled to the separation of church and state that the constitution grant me. And nobody, not you, not anyone, should have the right to have a theoligical right to post religious messages on public walls. There are plenty of private ones for that….

    • JoNoSo says:

      Angela, I completely agree with you. Excellent points.

    • Roger Wolsey says:

      I’m pretty sure that only Christians refer to God as Father. Native Americans sometimes refer to Him as Grandfather, but Jesus was the one who taught folks to refer to God as Father (abba/daddy). The prayer might be okay if it began with a neutral, “Light and Love,” (though that sounds sorta new agey lol).

  5. Why couldn’t they just remove “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen”? That is a fair compromise that keeps the tradition of the school while also removing the blatant Christian overtones.

    -Guy

  6. greenday19 says:

    AMEN!
    There is no place for such hatred toward a student who is probably more of a “Christian” than ANY of the morons saying hateful things to her.

    • Linda says:

      Greenday19,
      (my favorite band by the way…nice name)
      I am with you on that one. Atheists act more like Christians in their actions than most “God fearing Christians” do. The torment this girl has suffered and the threats to her made by so-called “Christians” is appalling.

      • Sasha says:

        Well said, Linda. Good Christians (and good Muslims, good Atheists, good anything) are fantastic. But if this group of hypocrites, these so-called “Christians” were anything like the adjective “Christian” which people seem to love using, they would also be supporting equal opportunity to religious practice for all, not just Christians.

        They would never dream of advocating using Christianity as a legal basis for US law, unless they also supported Shariah law for legal basis (or at least didn’t specifically legislate against it!) They would never post prayers in schools, or posting “In God We Trust” on government buildings and our currency, unless they also supported posting the Qur’an in schools and the Prophet’s sayings on our currency. It’s hypocrisy at its loudest, yet we let the majority control all.

        The problem is that many so-called “Christians” (many of whom who are anything but) feel a sense of entitlement from being in the majority. Just like many of the Puritans who came here fleeing religious persecution only to massacre the Indians, it seems that many “Christians” don’t want religious freedom for all: they want it only for themselves.

  7. Bill Bowen says:

    The community is what supports the school and they should have the right of having whatever reflects their own standards on the walls. Once more govermenent thinks they know what is good for the community. At what point do the people finally say enough? For the people and by the people? Doesn’t sound like it to me. Every little town in this big country was built on the standards set by the community. If the govermenent wants to run the school, then let them provide 100% of the support, Then the communty could decide if that is the school they want their kids to learn from.

    • slp says:

      This girl is part of the community. She and others deserve religion-free public places.

    • JD says:

      Would you also then support a wall-mounted prayer to Allah? If you open the door to having the simple majority push their religion of choice on your local public school, you would then have to be ok with a prominently Muslim community doing the same at their local public high school – to hell with what the Christian kids thought.

      The US government (local, state or federal) has a responsibility to not promote any one religion. If you want to live in a theocracy instead of a secular republic, there are plenty of Middle East countries you can pick from.

  8. Sct says:

    Guy, I agree. I’m fine with this, once you take off the “Heavenly Father.”

  9. Brandon says:

    @Angela, it doesn’t matter if it is referencing the heavenly father or a flying pig monster, which one has nothing to do with the fact that religion isn’t supposed to be in public schools. And it actually does protect you from being exposed to it in public places. Separation works both ways. If students want to pray it should be on their own time and not hung up in a school.

  10. If they’re going to pray in schools, they’ve got to be fair about it. We’ll have to bless Jesus for his work on the cross, and praise Odin for slaying the ice giants, and ask Allah to help us to always pray in the direction of Mecca, and ask the Lord and Lady to bless our friendships with members of the opposite (or same) sex.

    By the time we’re done praying to every god, idea of god, every lesser god and/or demi-god, the dismissal bell will have rang loud and proud, letting kids out of school to de-evolve into cro-magnon man…

    …or we could follow this lovely young woman’s example. ^.^

    PS I’m a Christian, too, and this is a wonderful article. Thank you for posting it.

  11. My2Cents says:

    As an atheist and a fan of compromise I suggest removing the “our heavenly father” and the “amen” and let the rest stand.

    The majority of the morals and values that Christianity and other religions attempt to instill could benefit everyone minus the extreme, outdated views and interpretations and the forcing it on everyone.

    My 2 cents…

  12. My2Cents says:

    lol just saw someone else suggested the same thing

  13. Pamela says:

    What a brave young woman! I applaud her work and courage, and agree that the prayer could easily be re-worded into a pledge. I am praying for her safety.

  14. Sisterlisa says:

    I’m a Christian and I stand by her too.

  15. I am a devout, practicing, and active Roman Catholic. I am also a left-wing, liberal, patriot who believes in the greatness and potential of our nation. With that said, I am proud of her intellect and courage.

    To stand alone for what you believe in, and in the face of such bitter opposition, is incredibly brave. Even with the courts being behind her, it’s still a lonely position to be in when so many people have lost perspective of the fact that she really has fought for OUR Constitution, and in keeping an institution (her school) honest and fair to all the citizens who walk the halls of that place.

    If you want your children to have a religious background, then by all means please send them to a private school (which was my own case for both elementary and high school). If a child is in a public school, then that school cannot appear, or actively attempt, to show a bias towards one religion over any others. That, in itself, goes against the Constitution…and the need for a clear separation between Church and State.

    In the end, I hope people will see this woman, and recognize her as a true patriot in the spirit of those who have fought for and defended the document that has defined the greatest nation, and her people, on Earth.

    • alexbpop says:

      What you say about the Constitution is flatly incorrect. The Constitution says absolutely nothing about what can and can’t happen in public schools. Public schools are not even mentioned in the Constitution. (One wonders why sticklers for the Constitution don’t demand that public schools be eliminated.) The Constitution also says nothing about “Separation of Church and State”.

  16. Eli says:

    I’m also Christian, liberal, and sensitive to and supportive of separation of church and state. I am torn on this, however, b/c despite full agreement w/ young Ms. Ahlquist on the technicalities, I wonder if it’s a little over-sensitive, a little too rigid. That it has hung in the school for 49 years, presumably w/ no ill effects, weighs in favor of it under the guise of acceptable “tradition,” and if you remove the first and last lines — referencing Heavenly Father and “Amen” — it’s a completely reasonable and noble set of objectives.

    At what point does standing too firmly on a principle start damaging equally important things like being graceful toward and tolerant of others?

    • changa says:

      Eli says: “…it has hung in the school for 49 years, presumably w/ no ill effects…”
      Upon what do you base that assumption? You greatly understate the pain and shame of 5 decades of non-christian students knowing that their principal & teachers view them as second class, unworthy of consideration. To be a Muslim or Jew at that school is to feel you are not truly a citizen of the USA. That cannot be ignored, and it should not stand.
      Thank God some 16-year-olds care about freedom and personal equality enough to stand up for the least of these.

  17. suze19107 says:

    Thomas Jefferson said:

    Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, [the people, in the 1st Amendment,] declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.

    The framers of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights went to great lengths to ensure that we all have a right to our beliefs but that they do NOT belong in the process we call democracy.

  18. What is everyone so fired up about? This prayer to “God the Father” is for all things that would make a school better and an excellent learning environment; growth, kindness, good sportsmanship and honesty. The real offense is that this prayer makes the claim that you can’t do it on your own, that you need help from something higher. In this case it is a certain god. That is the offensive thing, that you can’t do it on your own. People are fearful of “the government” forcing things on them, but they are more fearful of losing control they have never had. Most offensive of all is that there is only one true God, God the Father, and He created you for a purpose, to be with Him, and you need the perfect sacrifice of His son Jesus to attain that. Basically everyone has a hard time admitting that they cannot do everything well enough or have the ability to not do wrong to people around them, but that they need the substitution of a perfect life, Jesus’s, for their own. That is the offensive thing. Once I understood that, the fight against the government had far less of a weight in my heart. Jesus never tried to push an agenda on the government of His time. He certainly would have had the influence and the right, but He was more concerned with the hearts of men and women. Don’t misunderstand me, I am interested and active in the issues of the US government and I vote and want justice, but my post is not about Jessica’s fight for the removal of this plaque, I just wanted to take the opportunity to post about what I think is the real issue here. If you haven’t already, accept Jesus’s life for your own and enter into a relationship with the only true God, God the Father. You will need a bible if you start this relationship. You will have many questions and troubles along the way, but it will be so worth it for the hope, peace and joy, regardless of government, family, or economy.

  19. Greg Glendening says:

    Among the comments, this reformulation appears: “WE PLEDGE each day 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. WE PROMISE to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win. WE SEEK the value of true friendship and to always conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.”

    That reminds me of another non-sectarian (but government-sponsored) pledge, the 4-H pledge:

    I pledge my head to clearer thinking,
    my heart to greater loyalty,
    my hands to larger service
    and my health to better living,
    for my club, my community, my country, and my world.

    4-H is sponsored by the government. I never knew! (I guess there are no Jehovah’s Witnesses in 4-H!)

  20. Linda says:

    For anyone who doesn’t understand this ruling or agree with it, let me take a moment to explain. First of all: No, the majority does not always rule. In a constitutional democracy, people with minority, dissenting, or unpopular opinions and identities have some basic rights, which the majority cannot take away. If the majority thought that everyone had to dye their hair brown, or that all witches should be burned at the stake, the majority would not rule. Redheads have the right not to dye their hair brown; witches have the right not to be burned at the stake. No matter how much in the minority they are.

    And the right to not have your government impose a religious belief on you is one of these basic rights. The right to make your own private decisions about religion or the lack thereof, without your government enforcing or promoting a particular view on religion that may or may not be your own, is one of the most central rights that this country was founded on. In fact, it’s the very first right established in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux said in his ruling, “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 above is part of an article written about this very case by Greta Christina on Alternet.

    • alexbpop says:

      It is true that the majority does not always rule. However, the only cases in which the majority does not rule are those in which either the Constitution or some other, higher law overrides. Now contrary to what some people seem to think, the Constitution does not demand “separation of church and state”, nor does it place any limits on what a public school may place on its walls. Indeed, the first Amendment of the Constitution specifically says that it limits only what “Congress” can do. It places no limits at all on what a state or federal government can, much less does it say anything about aesthetic decisions such as what to put on walls.

      Hence your attempt to explain to us ignorant hicks out here why we’re so wrong has, instead, shown why you are wrong. The notion that this case has something to do with the First Amendment is obviously incorrect. American public schools held mandatory prayers since the foundation of our republic until about 40 years ago, when judges simply started making up new laws that had no relationship to the Constitution. It was only then that prayer in schools was outlawed.

      • changa says:

        alexbpop says: “the first Amendment of the Constitution specifically says that it limits only what “Congress” can do. It places no limits at all on what a state or federal government can…”
        School funding comes directly from Congress, and cannot be used to belittle belittle non-Christians like this. This clearly violates the US constitution.
        Also, prayer is not outlawed in public schools – I see prayers being held almost daily. As would you if you attended school, hence your characterization of yourself as an ignorant hick rings true. And perhaps that is unfair, but I can only judge what you post.

  21. alexbpop says:

    Changa:

    Most school funding comes from state and local governments, not from Congress. On that issue, you’re flatly wrong. Even if Cranston High School is one of the public schools that gets federal aid, there’s no reason to believe that any of the federal aid was used to buy this banner.

    Secondly, nothing in the banner belittles non-Christians or anyone else.

    As for prayer being legal in public schools, just tell that the Frank Lay and Robert Freeman. They are facing jail time because they said a short prayer in a public school. Here’s the story:

    http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/aug/14/criminal-prayer-case-stirs-protests/?feat=article_top10_read

  22. […] tend to draw out high emotions from both those in favor of destruction and those against it.  This blog post, for example, refers to the student who demanded the destruction of the prayer banner as a […]

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