CRANSTON, R.I. — She is 16, the daughter of a firefighter and a nurse, a self-proclaimed nerd who loves Harry Potter and Facebook. But Jessica Ahlquist is also an outspoken atheist who has incensed this heavily Roman Catholic city with a successful lawsuit to get a prayer removed from the wall of her high school auditorium, where it has hung for 49 years.
A federal judge ruled this month that the prayer’s presence at Cranston High School West was unconstitutional, concluding that it violated the principle of government neutrality in religion. In the weeks since, residents have crowded school board meetings to demand an appeal, Jessica has received online threats and the police have escorted her at school, and Cranston, a dense city of 80,000 just south of Providence, has throbbed with raw emotion.
State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show. Three separate florists refused to deliver her roses sent from a national atheist group. The group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights.
“I was amazed,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, which is based in Wisconsin and has given Jessica $13,000 from support and scholarship funds. “We haven’t seen a case like this in a long time, with this level of revilement and ostracism and stigmatizing.”
The prayer, eight feet tall, is papered onto the wall in the Cranston West auditorium, near the stage. It has hung there since 1963, when a seventh grader wrote it as a sort of moral guide and that year’s graduating class presented it as a gift. It was a year after a landmark Supreme Court ruling barring organized prayer in public schools.
“Our Heavenly Father,” the prayer begins, “grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful.” It goes on for a few more lines before concluding with “Amen.”
For Jessica, who was baptized in the Catholic Church but said she stopped believing in God at age 10, the prayer was an affront. “It seemed like it was saying, every time I saw it, ‘You don’t belong here,’ ” she said the other night during an interview at a Starbucks here.
Since the ruling, the prayer has been covered with a tarp. The school board has indicated it will announce a decision on an appeal next month.
A friend brought the prayer to Jessica’s attention in 2010, when she was a high school freshman. She said nothing at first, but before long someone else — a parent who remained anonymous — filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union. That led the Cranston school board to hold hearings on whether to remove the prayer, and Jessica spoke at all of them. She also started a Facebook page calling for the prayer’s removal (it now has almost 4,000 members) and began researching Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious freedom.
Last March, at a rancorous meeting that Judge Ronald R. Lagueux of United States District Court in Providence described in his ruling as resembling “a religious revival,” the school board voted 4-3 to keep the prayer. Some members said it was an important piece of the school’s history; others said it reflected secular values they held dear.
The Rhode Island chapter of the A.C.L.U. then asked Jessica if she would serve as a plaintiff in a lawsuit; it was filed the next month.
New England is not the sort of place where battles over the division of church and state tend to crop up. It is the least religious region of the country, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But Rhode Island is an exception: it is the nation’s most Catholic state, and dust-ups over religion are not infrequent. Just last month, several hundred people protested at the Statehouse after Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, lighted what he called a “holiday tree.”
In Cranston, the police said they would investigate some of the threatening comments posted on Twitter against Jessica, some of which came from students at the high school. Pat McAssey, a senior who is president of the student council, said the threats were “completely inexcusable” but added that Jessica had upset some of her classmates by mocking religion online.
“Their frustration kind of came from that,” he said.
Many alumni this week said they did not remember the prayer from their high school days but felt an attachment to it nonetheless.
“I am more of a constitutionalist but find myself strangely on the other side of this,” said Donald Fox, a 1985 graduate of Cranston West. “The prayer banner espouses nothing more than those values which we all hope for our children, no matter what school they attend or which religious background they hail from.”
Brittany Lanni, who graduated from Cranston West in 2009, said that no one had ever been forced to recite the prayer and called Jessica “an idiot.”
“If you don’t believe in that,” she said, “take all the money out of your pocket, because every dollar bill says, ‘In God We Trust.’ ”
Raymond Santilli, whose family owns one of the flower shops that refused to deliver to Jessica, said he declined for safety reasons, knowing the controversy around the case. People from around the world have called to support or attack his decision, which he said he stood by. But of Jessica, he said, “I’ve got a daughter, and I hope my daughter is as strong as she is, O.K.?”
Jessica said she had stopped believing in God when she was in elementary school and her mother fell ill for a time.
“I had always been told that if you pray, God will always be there when you need him,” she said. “And it didn’t happen for me, and I doubted it had happened for anybody else. So yeah, I think that was just like the last step, and after that I just really didn’t believe any of it.”
Does she empathize in any way with members of her community who want the prayer to stay?
“I’ve never been asked this before,” she said. A pause, and then: “It’s almost like making a child get a shot even though they don’t want to. It’s for their own good. I feel like they might see it as a very negative thing right now, but I’m defending their Constitution, too.”
Jen McCaffery contributed reporting.
Prayer banner: Atheist teen speaks out, lands $44,000 scholarship
By Rene Lynch
February 22, 2012, 11:41 a.m.
A Rhode Island teen is learning that it pays to deny the existence of God: Prominent atheists plan to present Jessica Ahlquist with a scholarship of at least $44,000 -- and possibly more.
It seems they were impressed with the way Ahlquist, 16, handled herself amid a roiling controversy that began in July 2010, when she complained about a prayer banner hanging in the auditorium at Cranston High School West that referred to "Our Heavenly Father."
School authorities brushed off her complaint, saying the banner was artistic and historic, as it had been hanging there for decades. Ahlquist later joined the American Civil Liberties Union in a suit alleging that the banner made her feel "ostracized and out of place."
After much legal wrangling, a court ruled that the banner needed to be removed -- and an uproar ensued.
The controversy helped Ahlquist, an atheist, collect thousands of friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter.
But it also sparked outrage on behalf of many others who embraced the banner and wanted the school district to stand firm. A state legislator called Ahlquist an "evil little thing." There were death threats. The financially strapped school district spent tens of thousands on legal fees. And recall threats were lodged against the school board.
Those school board jobs are still in jeopardy; the district voted last week to end the appeals process to save money.
Blogger Hemant Mehta who writes the Friendly Atheist started a campaign to raise scholarship money for Ahlquist, and the American Humanist Assn. is also helping to oversee the fund-raising effort, which runs through the end of the month.
"The way she has handled herself throughout this whole ordeal is admirable far beyond anything most people would expect from a high school student," Mehta wrote.
So far, the fund has raised $44,000 for Ahlquist. Mehta and the association say she earned the scholarship by standing up to critics "with class and style."