Brave student wins prayer mural lawsuit

AS prayer signs go, the one hanging for over 50 years in the auditorium of Cranston High School West in Cranston, Rhode Island, was not as cheesy as most. But its presence was in clear violation of church-state separation – and, thanks to the action of a brave humanist student, the school authorities were ordered by a judge this week to remove it.

'Despicable little monster' Jessica Ahlquist and the prayer mural she made vanish

Jessica Ahlquist’s dad Mark filed a lawsuit on her behalf, which resulted in a ruling by US District Court Judge Ronald R Lagueux that it should be removed immediately.

American Humanist Association leaders, according to this report, applauded the ruling. AHA’s Executive Director Roy Speckhardt said:

We are so proud of Jessica for fighting to protect church-state separation. She recognised injustice, stood up for what is right, and persevered in the face of harassment. She fought for the rights of non-believers and religious minorities and is an example for everyone.

The AHA ran a full-page newspaper advertisement in Cranston during the recent holiday season that stated Bias Against Atheists is Naughty, Not Nice, because of the harassment Ahlquist experienced at the hands of some  fellow students and community members during the lawsuit.

Details of her harassment are contained in this report, which reveals that:

The Internet, which in recent years has become a popular outlet for teenage bullying, has once again provided a forum for particularly discriminatory comments. One specific commenter exclaimed: It was by the grace of God that this despicable little monster of a girl has the freedom to express her anti-beliefs and nationally broadcast her extreme tolerance: the atheist way. I try really hard to be a good Christian, but this is just too much. This is what happens when kids don’t get discipline, and when parents are deadbeats. Boo these people, I hope they lose their homes.

Ahlquist, not letting comments like these bring her down, responded:

This one actually made me giggle.

Noted Monica Miller in Humanist Network News:

It is Ahlquist’s grace in the face of this type of public intolerance that has made her such a hero in the eyes of other humanists.

Judge Lagueux stated in the ruling that the “guiding principle” of the First Amendment to the US Constitution is “government neutrality” and that:

No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.

The judge also noted that the open meeting conducted to get public input about Ahlquist’s request to remove the banner “at times resembled a religious revival.” In addition, Lagueux didn’t give weight to the claim that the mural should stay for traditional reasons – having been erected in 1959 – stating that:

No amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction.

And he said of Jessica:

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.

Bill Burgess, attorney and legal coordinator of the AHA’s  legal arm, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, added:

The ruling by the District Court again confirms something that by now should be crystal clear to government officials: school-sponsored prayer has no place on the walls of a public school. The court clearly noted that the prayer mural’s long-standing nature, considered a school tradition by some, did not overcome its unconstitutional nature and justify its continued presence.

The AHA said it was proud to play a role in Ahlquist’s future by working with Hemant Mehta, blogger for the popular website The Friendly Atheist, to manage an education trust fund to help pay the cost of her future education. The Scholarship for Jessica Ahlquist account has already raised over $3,000 from more than 100 contributors.

Hat tip: Adam Tjaavk