Ahlquist: Fight over Mural, Despite Harrassment, Threats, "Worth It."

School Officials have not decided whether to appeal a federal judge's order for the prayer mural hanging in the auditorium at Cranston West be removed. The auditorium is now locked.

Jessica Ahlquist, the plaintiff in the over a prayer mural hanging in the Cranston High School West Auditorium, said she has endured harassment, threats, and lots of "flak" over her decision to fight.

"It has been a very long and difficult year for me and my family and we're just so glad it has finally been decided," the 16-year-old Ahlquist said this morning at the ACLU's offices in Providence, one day after a federal court judge ordered the banner be removed. "I've had to deal with a lot of harassment and negative flak from people who disagree with my views and opinions, but it's all worth it."

Ahlquist today was dubbed "an evil little thing," a "clapping seal" and a "pawn star" on WPRO, a talk radio station, by state Rep. Peter Polombo. Students have threatened to beat her up. An anonymous commenter posted her home address on the Providence Journal's Web site last night. Readers on this website and others that covered the story have called her "a little snot," a "witch" and accuse her of seeking attention.

"Even if lots of kids in school hate you, even if there's nasty comments on the Internet, it's important to stand up for something you believe in," Ahlquist said. "I could have said nothing but I did what I believe in and I'm glad I did what I did."

It is unclear whether school officials will push to continue the battle over the prayer mural and move to appeal . School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi said that the School Committee will discuss the matter next Tuesday, but most likely will not vote on the matter. In the meantime, the auditorium is now locked in order to comply with the ruling and the banner has been covered by a tarp.

The banner was erected in the auditorium at the high school in 1963. It begins with the phrase "Our Heavenly Father" and ends with "Amen," and hung in place for more than 50 years before it became the center of controversy. David Bradley, the author of the prayer and a graduate of the class of 1963, said he was tasked to write the prayer and the creed as a student council member in 1960 at the request of his adviser and the school administration.

The ACLU raised the issue in July of 2010 after a complaint from a parent. In a letter to the district, Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU, wrote "there can be no question that the school auditorium’s prayer display violates a core principle of the First Amendment."

The district refused to remove the banner and instead, held a series of public hearings during which several School Committee members and a majority of residents who attended argued in favor of keeping the banner in place, citing its "historical significance" and highlighting its positive and moral message. The committee ultimately voted to defend the banner and the ACLU promptly filed suit last May.

Ahlquist said she knows that there are other students in the school who agree with her and will probably feel a sense of liberation now that Lagueux's decision is final.

She said she was "thrilled" when she heard about the decision and "wasn't surprised" because "in my mind I knew what we were doing was right and I was sure the judge would understand that."

Lynette Labinger, lawyer for the ACLU, said that the case was a clear-cut case and no argument could be made to refute the fact the mural was a clear violation of the Establishment clause and a constitutional infraction.

"Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island Colony, opposed government sanctioned or mandated expressions of religious significance and [the school district] attempted to reject and trivialize the message to preserve it," Labinger said, noting that school officials aruged there was no religious significance to the mural and emphasized its historic value.

"They attempted to reject and trivialize the message to preserve it," Labinger said.

The case "demonstrated the rancor and divisiveness" that arises when church and state mingle, Labinger said, and the law prevailed in this case "because of our heritage and core beliefs."

Since the decision, Cranston Police said they are , including numerous Twitter posts by some of her classmates declaring that she should be beaten up. Some of the comments could constitute cyberbullying and represent violations of the Safe Schools Act — recently passed legislation that establishes a unified state policy against cyberbullying approved by the Rhode Island General Assembly last year and signed into law by Governor Lincoln Chafee last summer.

The legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Beatrice A. Lanzi (D-Dist. 26, Cranston) defines cyberbullying as "the use by one or more students of a written, verbal or electronic expression" that "causes physical or emotional harm to the student," "places the student in reasonable fear of harm to himself/herself," or "creates an intimidating, threatening, hostile or abusive educational environment for the student."

Yesterday, one Twitter user said "this girl honestly needs to be punched in the face."

Another user bragged "your home address posted online i cant wait to hear about you getting curb stomped you ****ing worthless c***."

And some users using their real names identified themselves as classmates of Jessica Ahlquist, the plaintiff, one saying "definelty laying it down on this athiest tomorrow anyone else?"

Police said they are patrolling Ahlquists' house and the school this weekend.

In a post on the blog RIFuture.org today, Steve Ahlquist, Ahlquist's uncle and founder of the Humanists of Rhode Island, said "To the credit of the Cranston School Committee, when I contacted them with my concerns, they were quick to assure me that the Cranston Police have been investigating these threats since last night, and that they are taking this issue very seriously."

Many Twitter users have deleted their posts but many have been saved permanently in screen shots and in postings on various blogs on the Internet, including this one. *Warning, link leads to content that is unsuitable for children.*

Ahlquist, who did not attend school on Friday, has said that she is determined to return to school next week and show she is not afraid to stand up for herself and her beliefs.

Robin Lionheart April 26, 2012 at 12:26 AM
We already conversed about that in the “Prayer Banner Removed” comments. I refer you back to my response there.
Prof. Frederick Sweet April 30, 2012 at 10:57 AM
Concerning the ACLU's defense of Christians preaching in public parks; "... Students from Belmont, MTSU and Tennessee Tech who hold church services with the homeless in a Metro park will be allowed to continue conducting services after the ACLU of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) successfully negotiated with the Metro Board of Parks and Recreation to revise a policy that unfairly blocked religious groups' regular use of park space. ACLU-TN commended the Board's Tuesday vote to change the language of its policy so that it will no longer prohibit regular religious speech in public parks." See: http://www.aclufightsforchristians.com/ What the ACLU would not defend are the rights of the badly behaved, primitive people making vicious threats against Jessica Ahlquist for insisting the Cranston school board obey the law. Evidently those hostile, foul mouthed individuals slept through Sunday school when they were teaching Jesus' principles of treating people the way you wish them to treat you. His "do unto others ..." principle.
Galileo Galilei September 16, 2012 at 09:53 PM
what is wrong with these people that they feel the need to verbally attack this 16yo girl. Is their religion that weak that they need to kill this girl? Just goes to show what the USA would be like if it was a theocracy
Annabelle October 18, 2012 at 10:52 PM
I don't think any of us wants a theocracy. What religion would we pick? I am a Christian and think it's very sad that atheists are so deeply offended by religion that we have to remove prayers from our school walls. Nobody was being forced to pray, worship or attend a church service. Freedom of speech works both ways. I believe atheists want to push atheism because it empowers them, not because they really care about society. They have no real cause. They believe in nothing but themselves because they have nothing to believe in. It's about pushing an anti-religion agenda and nothing else. If it were about tolerance and acceptance, the prayer wouldn't bother them. They preach tolerance while they try to silence those who disagree with them. Some call it hypocrisy.
Robin Lionheart October 19, 2012 at 06:26 AM
@Annabelle “Nobody was being forced to pray, worship or attend a church service.” Not today, but in 1962, yes they were. Cranston High led students in reciting that School Prayer daily after the Pledge of Allegiance. “I believe atheists want to push atheism because it empowers them, not because they really care about society. They have no real cause. They believe in nothing but themselves because they have nothing to believe in.” In this case, atheists fought for the cause of separation of church and state for the betterment of society, and did not push atheism. “If it were about tolerance and acceptance, the prayer wouldn’t bother them.” That’s backward. If Cranstonites were interested in tolerance and acceptance of non-Christians, taking down a Christian prayer wouldn’t have driven them to such rage. “They preach tolerance while they try to silence those who disagree with them.” Also backward. Jessica wasn’t trying to silence anyone, but many Cranstonites were trying to silence her. “Some call it hypocrisy.” Hypocritically.


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