Reason prevails in Rhode Island school prayer ruling

Hooray for Jessica!

The Freedom From Religion Foundation warmly congratulates 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist, whose federal challenge against a prayer banner hanging in her high school in Rhode Island prevailed when U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux ruled yesterday the banner must be removed immediately. The banner is titled “School Prayer,” addresses “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen.”

Lagueux not only ruled in Jessica’s favor, but noted in his decision that she “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.”

The petite Jessica, a shy teenager with backbone thrust into a huge controversy, was named FFRF’s Thomas Jefferson Student Activist awardee last year. She wowed and charmed the 34th annual national FFRF convention in Hartford, Conn., on Oct. 8, when she accepted her $1,000 scholarship in person and recounted her experiences. (Read or listen to speech, “Teen stands fall for First Amendment,” November Freethought Today.)

In her speech to FFRF, Jessica noted that many students and parents reacted angrily from the start to critics of the school’s unconstitutional prayer banner. When she and others spoke up again the banner at several meetings, reactions ranged from angry glares and murmurs to gasps when she identified herself as an atheist. “Someone’s trying to destroy God,” was one reaction. Classmates would scream “God Bless You” in her face if she sneezed, and she lost some former friends. When her town’s mayor, at an unrelated event in the school auditorium, pointed to the prayer and said, “I would like to see that prayer stay exactly where it is,” the entire auditorium erupted with ovations, cheers and applause. “I sat there and tried not to cry,” she recalled. One day she and a friend were removed from class after rumors of violence. Another day she remembered, “I went home crying.”

Jessica noted that despite the hostile climate and the fact that “people don’t want to be associated with me,” last fall she started a secular student club.

Lagueux ended his decision:

“Over the many years of its history, the Supreme Court has turned to the words of the Founding Fathers and the framers of the Constitution to support varying interpretations of the Establishment Clause. Many chapters have been devoted to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and even Abraham Lincoln, and what their expectations were for the public religious practices of this nation. This Court has tried to resist the temptation of injecting lofty rhetoric into this opinion, but nonetheless was moved by the words, as quoted in Schempp, of Roger Williams, the founder of our state, who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony in pursuit of religious liberty.

There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or human combination, or society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked on one ship; upon which supposal, I affirm that all the liberty of conscience I ever pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges, that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any."

“We warmly congratulate Jessica for standing up for our Constitution. This is a lawsuit that should not even have been necessary. What Jessica endured in order to bring an end to this obvious First Amendment violation shows how essential it is to keep religion out of our public schools, where it creates only mischief and divisiveness,” said FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Mark and Jessica Ahlquist (Photos by Jeff Yardis)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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