Freethought Today · Vol. 29 No. 1 January/February 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Judge rules in favor of Jessica Ahlquist

Rhode Islanders go ape over prayer; freethinkers show floral support

The stream of hate and profanity previously aimed at Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist increased by multitudes in the wake of a federal judge’s order to permanently remove a Christian prayer banner at Cranston West High School. She received death threats and numerous obscene comments directed at her online after the Jan. 11 decision was released.

The 8-foot-tall banner, currently covered with a tarp while the School Committee of the city of Cranston and the city of Cranston decided whether to appeal the judge’s ruling, is titled “School Prayer,” addresses “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen.”

“No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that,” said U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux in a 40-page opinion. “Its opening, calling upon the ‘Heavenly Father,’ is an exclusively Christian formulation of a monotheistic deity, leaving out, inter alia, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists alike.”

Ahlquist, 16, received FFRF’s Thomas Jefferson Student Activist scholarship award last year and spoke at FFRF’s 34th national convention in October in Hartford, Conn., five days before Lagueux heard arguments in the case in which she was the plaintiff in an ACLU suit seeking removal of the banner.

FFRF announced on Jan. 19 the creation of its Atheists in Foxholes Support Fund, with Ahlquist receiving a $10,000 scholarship as the fund’s first recipient. She was also awarded $2,000 from FFRF in January for her student activism. She’s being treated as a pariah by many classmates and adults and has expressed a desire to graduate early from high school and attend college out of state.

Banner supporters argued it was more historic and artistic than religious. In his decision, Lagueux called the tradition argument “a murky and dangerous bog. While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction. The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular.”

David Bradley, 65, who wrote the prayer in 1960 when he was in seventh grade, told the Westerly Sun that he’s “absolutely incensed, disenfranchised and outraged. It’s just one more example of secularism eroding the fabric of America.”

The class of 1963, the school’s first graduating class, had Bradley’s prayer printed on heavy paper and hung it in the auditorium as a gift to the school. Bradley called Ahlquist a “trained seal.” On WPRO Radio, Bradley said, “It’s a shame that some judge with an appointment out of a Cracker Jack box can make a ruling like that.” Lagueux, 80, was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan.

State Rep. Peter Palumbo, D-Cranston, went on WPRO to call Ahlquist an “evil little thing.” He also called her a pawn “being coerced by evil people. . . She’s being trained to do this.”

FFRF sent an Action Alert protesting Palumbo’s vicious attack: “If anything is ‘evil,’ it is your inflammatory words contributing to a situation in which an entire community, if not state, appears to be arrayed against one young, brave and diminutive teenager. Your reckless and unprofessional words as an elected state official endanger Jessica’s standing and her security in the community.”

Florists just say no

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, wishing to send a bouquet of roses to congratulate Ahlquist on the court victory, contacted a shop Jan. 17 in Madison, Wis., to assist with delivery. The results:

• Floral Express, in Cranston, on Wednesday messaged the Madison shop via Dove Network, an electronic order service, that it was “closed on the requested delivery day” (which was Wednesday, Jan. 18) and said “ I am not able to fill this.”

• The Madison florist was contacted by Twins Florist in Cranston on Jan. 18 via Dove Network: “I will not deliver to this person.”

• Flowers by Santilli in Cranston was contacted by phone. The owner, upon hearing the name of the recipient, said he would rather not get involved and refused to fill the order. “We chose not to make the delivery because first of all, most important, it’s our belief system,” Claudia Colardo-Santilli told WPRI News.

• Seeking to go outside Cranston, the Madison firm contacted Greenwood Flower & Garden in Warwick, which agreed to accept the order, then called back saying patrons were phoning and emailing threatening to boycott his business, so he refused the order.

FFRF filed a formal complaint Jan. 19 with the state of Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, alleging “illegal discrimination based on religion” for failure to fill the order. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert cited the state law that says it’s unlawful for a place of accommodation to deny services “on account of religion.”

Markert added, “Twins Florist violated this statute when it refused the order by FFRF and it stated in its refusal that it would not ‘deliver to this person.’ ” FFFRF is filing a separate complaint with the commission against Flowers by Santilli.

Unbelievably, other shops noted on a Facebook page that “I stand with the Cranston florists,” seeking public support.

“They must grow ’em mean in Rhode Island,” commented Gaylor.

FFRF was forced to go to an out-of-state business, Glimpse of Gaia, in Putnam, Conn., which not only agreed to deliver the flowers but threw in a second bouquet with its own message: “Glimpse of Gaia fully supports our First Amendment and will not be bullied by those who do not. Here’s to you, Jessica Ahlquist.” (See sidebar on Glimpse of Gaia.)

FFRF heard from people from as far away as Sweden and Denmark wishing to support Ahlquist, with some saying they would be ordering flowers for her from the Connecticut shop.

Ball in school’s court

A major factor in the School Committee’s decision whether to appeal is the cost. That doesn’t matter to people like Lisa French, who according to the Cranston Patch was removed from the Jan. 17 board meeting for rushing members and throwing fistfuls of cash at them to spend on an appeal. “Here’s your money. If you don’t defend the banner, you will not be reelected,” French shouted, “any of you!” An estimated 250 people attended.

School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi warned that anyone speaking ill of Ahlquist “clearly does not understand the intent of the banner and will be asked to leave,” adding that even if she doesn’t agree with Ahlquist, “we can all recognize her bravery for standing up for what she believes in.”

ABC-6 in Providence reported that Ahlquist was under police protection during and after school. Mayor Allan Fung said he supports the banner but said there’s no money for an appeal. Superintendent Peter Nero said the district has a legal budget of $150,000. “I put no money into this budget regarding any litigation in the banner issue.”

At the board meeting in the auditorium, Ahlquist was led in and out by police. The crowd sang “God Bless America” and Christian hymns. (In his decision, Judge Lagueux said a March board meeting on the issue “at times resembled a religious revival.)

Ahlquist urged the committee not to appeal. She noted that Lagueux is a Catholic and conservative. “This is not about religion. This is about the Constitution and it always has been. Religion does not have a place in public school and this country was not founded on the idea of Christianity and Christian principles. It was founded on the idea of religious freedom. If you want to defend the Constitution, you will remove the banner.”

The board’s next scheduled meeting is Jan. 25 (the day after this issue went to press).

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