Victory for Jessica Ahlquist and the Constitution

I've previously written about the case of Jessica Ahlquist, an incredibly brave young atheist from Rhode Island who's the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging an unconstitutional "School Prayer" banner in her high school's auditorium. Today, I'm happy to announce that the judge has ruled, and it was a resounding victory for the good guys:


The high school student who sought the removal of a prayer mural from the auditorium at Cranston High School West has won her suit in federal court. U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux, in a 40-page ruling issued Wednesday on the lawsuit filed by Jessica Ahlquist's father, Mark Ahlquist, has ordered the "immediate" removal of the prayer mural, although he has given Cranston school officials 10 days to respond.

Judge Lagueux, who was appointed by that notorious liberal Ronald Reagan, handed down a strong decision against the school. (Read the full decision here.) The ruling mentioned some facts I didn't know - among them, that the banner's prayer was originally composed by a student council and recited in class every day, prior to the Engel v. Vitale decision striking down compulsory religious exercises in public school. But even after that prayer could no longer be recited by school administrators, the banner itself stayed up until this challenge.

As is inevitable in these cases, the school took the absurd position that a huge banner titled "School Prayer" and addressed to "Our Heavenly Father" was a purely secular statement intended only to memorialize the school's history and teach moral values to students. Judge Lagueux's ruling eviscerates this claim:

The Prayer Mural espouses important moral values, yet it does so in the context of religious supplication. The retention of the Prayer Mural is no doubt a nod to Cranston West's tradition and history, yet that nod reflects the nostalgia felt by some members of the community who remember fondly when the community was sufficiently homogeneous that the religion of its majority could be practiced in public schools with impunity. [p.30-31]
...the School Committee endorsed the position of those who believe that it is acceptable to use Christian prayer to instill values in public schoolchildren; a decision that clearly placed the 'nonadherents' outside of the political community. [p.34]

But despite the school's attempt to claim secular status for the banner, this fig-leaf strategy was undercut by what always happens in these cases - loud and ignorant people who stated outright that they knew perfectly well the banner was a government endorsement of their religious beliefs, and wanted this situation to continue:

A video recording of the meeting reveals a rowdy and belligerent atmosphere. Speakers in favor of retaining the Prayer Mural were often interrupted by calls of "Amen" from the audience, and they were usually followed by loud applause and whoops. [p.10]
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 Plaintiff 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. Similarly, five of the seven School Committee members expressed avowals of their own religious beliefs at the meeting, including two of those who voted against retaining the Mural. [p.31]

For taking a stand against the religious prejudices of her community, Jessica (and her family) have attracted the inevitable flood of hostile attention. The ruling makes mention of this as well:

At the February meeting, Plaintiff spoke again. Two speakers who followed Plaintiff suggested that she be charged with a hate crime. [p.9]
Plaintiff is clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community. [p.39]

The Providence Journal article has the usual assortment of stupid and nasty comments from bigots, including people who think they're very clever for pointing out that money says "In God We Trust" on it (news flash: atheists object to this too), or others who hilariously suggest that if she didn't like the banner, she could have just looked in another direction (if there was a banner that said "There Is No God" in the auditorium, how many Christian parents do you think would tell their kids to just not look at it?). I'm told that one person posted the Ahlquist family's full home address, though that comment seems to have since been removed, and she's also gotten death threats (presumably from good Christians).

Given the ample evidence of bullying, threats and harassment from the community, there's no denying that Jessica has been through a lot, and she deserves our thanks for taking a stand for the Constitution. On Friendly Atheist, there's a campaign to raise money that will be held in trust for a college scholarship for her. It's already attracted almost $5,000 at the time of this writing, and I intend to kick in some more. If you're in a position to donate, please consider doing likewise. We need more outstanding young freethinkers coming forward, and we can encourage them to do so if we show that the atheist community will stand behind them.

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