Brava, Jessica Ahlquist: Rhode Island High School Student Wins Separation Lawsuit

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.


124 thoughts on “Brava, Jessica Ahlquist: Rhode Island High School Student Wins Separation Lawsuit”

  1. Little Jessica, I have no doubt that you will grow up to be a militant Communist, just like dear leader intended. Poor little thing,you don’t even realize that you’re being used.

  2. My computer quit and has been in the shop all week. Withdrawal symptoms include reading some books that have been patiently waiting. Anyway, back to the topic at the top. Congratulations, Jessica! You spoke for all those whose religion, or lack thereof, is different from that reflected in the banner but who didn’t speak up.

  3. Sean:

    I say round 2. No hitting below the belt, no mention of any one’s mother, a persons dog or cat and children are off limits as well. No lesbian jokes, no racial comments, no comparisons to gays or their lifestyle, religious references are strictly forbidden and no mention of political party affiliation will be tolerated. No foul language or referencing body parts. No derogatory remarks about a person’s intelligence or lack thereof, no short, fat or tall jokes, no thin jokes, no references to overeating or bulimia. Comparing someone to Barry Manilow or Elton John is off limits, Frank Sinatra references are OK in regard to eye color only.

    Let the round begin.

    Ding, Ding, Ding

  4. AWWWWWW Good Morning. You guys ready for round 2, or should we just move on…your call. 🙂

  5. The Cultofthe5thGrade met this evening to discuss the topic and we have read all of the comments. All. We voted to decide whether to chimne in on the “adult” bickering going on here. Fifty percent voted not to characterize it as “adult” bickering and to remain silent. The other Fifty percent voted to ask you guys to consider toning down the direct verbal assaults on each other. We thought it mindless to characterize each other as childish, when in fact you are all very adultish. Our 5thGrade group doesnt fight like this. We are referring to this experiment in joining this blog as GroupTerapy. sp intended.

  6. I used to have an assistant who was a Lesbian and proud of it. I got the lowdown on a lot of stuff, some of which I don’t think I was quite old enough to hear.

  7. “….or anything useful….”

    AY, people like that are as useful as a condom at a convention of Lesbians.

  8. Come back any time you want to embarrass actual Christians again with your ignorance, intolerance and foul mouth, Sean.

  9. Okay okay now I am serious. I am out for the night. It has been fun and you guys had some good burns. However, I would caution you about being so aggressive. Seems like some of ya took this waaay too serious. Pease out brothers.

    1. Now this is funny….Gene…You can’t do the troll roll can you? Beside Sean does not like to argue….bicker is more like it…tries and point out what is wrong rather than making a valid point….or anything useful….

  10. Gene, what we have here is the typical junior high bully mentality. Bullies have no agenda other than to try and feel empowered by belittling others. Bullies like the Internet because they can bully with few or no consequences. They can live with the illusion they have magical powers to control others simply by writing comments on blogs, YouTube and Facebook. That might work with a kid who does not have a fully formed ego. When the bullies try their tricks with adults old enough to be their parents or grandparents and have terminal professional degrees, the shoe is on the other foot. The bully has no clue they are being toyed with like a cat playing with a ball of yarn.

    One of my favorite things is to get a lawyer to ask me a question to which he does not know the answer. Setting up a lawyer for cross examination like pins in a bowling alley is an exercise in carefully worded responses, much like the Bene Gesseret using The Voice. Then they don’t know until it is too late they are not the ball but the pins. I have been a long time student of the work of Milton Erickson, master of the indirect suggestion.

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