CRANSTON High School West, the centre of a bitter row and a highly publicised law suit over a 50-year-old religious mural in its auditorium, finally has a secular replacement.
At the centre of the controversy was 16-year-old atheist Jessica Ahlquist who fought — and won — a legal battle against the school over the religious mural.
Alquist was subjected to a barrage of abuse and threats by outraged Christians – and a Rhode Island State Representative Peter Palumbo even went as far as to brand her “an evil little thing”.
Speaking on on the John DePetro Radio Show, a Rhode Island talk radio programme, Palumbo compounded his offensive remark by claiming that:
She is being coerced by evil people.
This implied that atheists and other secular Americans are “evil”.
A backlash immediately followed. Palumbo’s wholesale slander of an entire community was challenged by atheists, freethinkers and other secular Americans.
Palumbo was furious because US District Court Judge Ronald R Lagueux had ordered the “immediate removal” of the prayer banner in 2012.
Those who slammed Palumbo said his remarks perpetuated a pernicious and ignorant stereotype of atheists and other secular Americans. His remarks were offensive, and should not be tolerated.
To insult and demean a 16 year old girl acting in good faith is in itself a despicable act unworthy of any adult, much less an elected official. But to insult and demean an entire community is simply intolerable.
The threats she received, including those from fellow students, made it impossible for Jessica to return to Cranston for her senior year.
Last Saturday, the Class of 1963 – the group that gifted the school with the original religious mural – gave the school a new one as part of a celebration of their 50-year reunion (as well as another matching banner with the “School Creed”). This one is secular and constitutional.
The mural reads FALCONS (the school mascot) vertically down as an acronym, with each letter representing lessons students should internalize:
Foster an atmosphere of good will and respect
Affirm our efforts to conduct ourselves with honor
Learn from our achievements and mistakes
Choose wisely the paths taken and friends made
Overcome prejudice and embrace diversity
Nurture ourselves, families, friends and communities
Strive for excellence in all our future endeavors
At the invitation-only ceremony at the school to unveil the new mural, representatives of the class said the new gift was a way of moving on from the conflict stirred up by the old one. Eighty people were invited to the unveiling ceremony.
Jessica wasn’t on the list.
But from now on, thanks to her bravery, whenever students look at the new mural in the auditorium, they’ll be able to take away valuable life lessons… instead of the school’s official position on the nature of God.
Since her court victory, Jessica Ahlquist has been giving talks all over America about her lawsuit. She is pictured here speaking at the Reason Rally in Washington DC last year. She also was among several winners of the Hugh M Hefner First Amendment Awards.