Rhode Island high school student Jessica Ahlquist has taught her school officials a useful lesson on civics this week. The Cranston High School West student won her challenge to a large prayer mural displayed at the school with a federal judge ordering its removal as a violation of the separation of church and state.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux issued a 40-page ruling Wednesday but I have not been able to review it (and this morning it is still not on Lexis/Nexis).
In the complaint below, the ACLU details how Ahlquist tried to engage her friends but found few allies in her campaign to have the prayer removed. She was undeterred by the peer pressure and created a Facebook account to campaign for its removal.
When she learned that the School Committee had established a subcommittee to consider the Prayer, she mustered her courage and spoke against the Prayer at its meeting on November 30, 2011 (11/30/11 Min. at 10) (“But, as an atheist, I have the right to go to school and not feel discriminated against by the people who are praying there.”) “When [Plaintiff] said she was an atheist, someone in the room let out a small gasp and J –A- heard some quiet whispering. She felt they dismissed her beliefs and feelings, and made her feel entirely alone, causing her to wonder whether she was irrational for feeling the way she did. She also felt extremely nervous and unwelcome at this meeting.” (Pl. Int. # 5 at 8)
Plaintiff also spoke out against the Prayer at the Subcommittee meeting of February 22, 2011 (2/22/11 Min. at 7) and at the School Committee meeting of March 7, 2011 (3/7/11 Min. at 60 and video of entire proceedings, Pl. 19). At the February 22 subcommittee meeting, Plaintiff again was made to “feel very intimidated and nervous, as well as hated. Speaking was much more difficult that night because she felt that many of the people in the room were angry at her and disliked her personally for speaking out against the prayer.” (Pl. Int. #5 at 9) After the March 7, 2011 meeting and after she filed the law suit, Plaintiff received bullying and intimidating taunts, comments and threats at school, on her way home from school, and on-line. (Pl. Int. #5 5 at 10-14; JA Dep. at 40-44)
At a meeting on the issue, local board members publicly proclaimed their faith and the need for the religious statement. Committee member Traficante identified himself as “a person of faith” and noted that as a coach he made sure to start every game with a prayer with the team. He insisted on preserving the display as part of the “obligation as School Committee members to protect and defend the moral values of our students and that banner helps us to express that[.]” Chairperson Iannazzi’s went further to say that the country “was founded not on freedom from religion but freedom of religion. Each person has the ability to practice whatever religion they want. That does not mean that they have the freedom from religion being practiced.” Obviously, the federal court disagreed.
The school insisted on fighting this well-based challenge despite a long line of cases contradicting the positions of the school board. As the Court noted in Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum, 555 U.S. 460 (2009), “[b]y accepting a privately donated monument and placing it on city property, a city engages in expressive conduct[.]” It further stressed that a permanent monument is, “by definition, a structure that is designed as a means of expression.”
This girl stood up to not just peers but politicians to fight for the values of separation of church and state. In doing so, she gave her friends a lesson in civic responsibility and gave her school board a lesson in constitutional values. At a time with separation principles under attack, Jessica added a case in the win column for a society where faith is a personal not a public priority.
Congratulations to the lawyers of the Rhode Island ACLU in this important victory and again to Jessica Ahlquist and her parents.