In Rhode Island, a student’s lesson in religious freedom
At the tender age of 16, Jessica Ahlquist has already endured more verbal abuse than most people experience in a lifetime.
A high school student in Cranston, R.I., Jessica has been taunted and threatened at school, targeted by an online hate campaign, and called “an evil little thing” by a state representative on the radio.
Her crime? She asked school officials to remove a “school prayer” banner from the auditorium of Cranston West High School. Addressed to “Our Heavenly Father,” the prayer banner was presented to the school by the Class of 1963 and has been affixed to the wall as a mural ever since.
At the school committee hearing to consider the issue, public outrage turned the meeting into a religious revival. Angry citizens lined up to proclaim their allegiance to God, quote the Bible and condemn Jessica to hell.
“If you take the banner down,” one woman testified, “you are spitting in the face of God.”
Another banner supporter warned: “You can’t vote to take this down and say that you’re standing with God.”
After the school committee bowed to public pressure and voted to keep the banner, Jessica’s father (supported by the American Civil Liberties Union) filed suit on her behalf.
On Jan. 11, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux ruled in Jessica’s favor and ordered the banner removed. It was an easy case. For more than 60 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that promotion of religion by public school officials violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
“When focused on the Prayer Mural,” wrote the judge, “the activities and agenda of the Cranston School Committee became excessively entangled with religion, exposing the committee to a situation where a loud and passionate majority encouraged it to vote to override the constitutional rights of a minority.”
Undeterred, supporters of the prayer banner are holding a “prayer rally” this week to urge the school committee to keep fighting.
Jessica may be in the minority in Cranston, but she’s in good company as the latest in a long line of Rhode Island dissenters—beginning with the state’s founder, Roger Williams.
Williams, who was himself verbally attacked, was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for objecting to the entanglement of religion and government that, he believed, corrupted both.
He founded Rhode Island as the first government in history with no established religion and a commitment to protect liberty of conscience for every person. As a deeply religious Christian minister, Williams vowed to put an end to centuries of oppression and coercion by erecting what he called “a wall or hedge of separation” between the “Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the World.”
Rhode Island was to be a “haven for the cause of conscience” where government stayed out of religion and all people (including Quakers, Catholics and others persecuted in surrounding colonies) would be free to choose in matters of faith.
If he were alive today, there’s little doubt that Roger Williams would be solidly in Jessica’s corner. He would view the “school prayer” banner as blasphemous state appropriation of religion. However big or small the issue, Williams believed that any state entanglement with religion violates conscience, divides society, and (most important for him) offends God.
Of course, keeping government neutral toward religion did not mean for Williams then, and does not mean now, keeping religion out of public life. He would applaud that Cranston students are free to pray alone or in groups (as long as they don’t disrupt school). Moreover, under current law, students may bring their scriptures to school, share their faith with classmates and form religious clubs.
You might think it would be easy to stand up for religious freedom in the birthplace of religious freedom—but apparently it isn’t. In Judge Lagueux’s words, Jessica Ahlquist “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.”
Thanks to Jessica, the spirit of Roger Williams—America’s first great dissenter—is alive and well in Rhode Island.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.