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. OS,

    I had almost this exact same argument elsewhere on the net tonight. This case came up and a friend of a friend started in about how there was no such thing as the Separation of Church and State because “those words aren’t in the Constitution”. I informed him of the error of his ways citing both the Establishment Clause and Lemon v Kurtzman. I then explained that not all legal doctrines are named for exact language in the document they refer to and that this doctrine was based on a phrase Jefferson used in his famous Danbury Baptist Association letter. The most offensive part of the exchange was his apparent pride in his ignorance and resorting to “you just told me a bunch of lawyer bs” and his weak semantic rebuttal.

    When people like that get a bad diagnosis from a doctor, I wonder if they say it’s just a bunch of doctor bs?

    Ignorance is one thing. Pride in ignorance another all together. The only way I can think of to deal with it is be like water eroding stone.

  2. Gene, you can talk to those folks until you are blue in the face, but they will never “get it.”

    There is a total lack of understanding of both law and simple respect for the belief systems of others.

    When watching a sports event, such as an auto race, that has an invocation at the start of the race, I cringe. Along with the usual prayer for a safe race, the minister almost always ends with something about accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. I know for a fact there are a lot of Jewish and Muslim race fans, not to mention Rastafarians and others. How would that same crowd react to a plea to other deities? Never mind, I know the answer to that one.

    Andrea has a lot to learn about people, respect and the law.

  3. Or perhaps if they had understood the impropriety of posting a prayer in a public school in the first place as a matter of Constitutional Law, they wouldn’t have lost in court.

  4. Just because the Catholic church and other Christian church goers quite often know nothing about what they preach and some quite often do more harm than good; does not make a sweet prayer written by a child many years ago offensive. This request for removal was ignorant and childish. This prayer had nothing offensive in it, to remove it hurt many people who believe in a god; just because you don’t believe does not give you the right to take it away from others, it was not asking for anyone to believe, or was it saying anything bad about non believers.
    There are many ignorant religious people throughout the world and many ignorant non religious people also. It is not fair to punish all of them because some are ignorant fools. This was ignorant to remove this sweet sentiment written by a child 49 years ago that was not in any way offensive to enlightened non ignorant atheists. The only reason this could have been a violation of her constitutional rights was if she or others had been forced to read it or it was read aloud or copies distributed of the prayer. She had a choice to look the other way she did not have to read it nor did anyone else.Please stop rewarding this girl for what she did, all she did was prove her intolerance for her fellow human beings as well as her ignorance. The school offered to remove the only part of the prayer that had anything to do with religion and it was still refused; they tried to make her and others more comfortable even though it went against what they believed. This girl has no tolerance at all and no respect for others. The only wrong doing was how people treated her after she shared her beliefs, but this is HIgh School it should have been expected. Perhaps if she had been more tolerant of their beliefs they would have been more tolerant of hers.

  5. “In addition to sending flowers, FFRF announced, after Jessica’s state legislator had called her “an evil little thing,” that it is re-awarding Jessica its Thomas Jefferson Student Activist award, this time doubling the scholarship to $2,000. “The thicker critics lay on the hate, the more we freethinkers will support Jessica,” Gaylor said.” (also from the link)

    I have a feeling that she’ll be just fine in the long run, which isn’t to minimize what she’s going through now…

  6. Thanks for the link, Nal. There’s more of this kind of thing going on than many people realize.

  7. “FFRF, a 501(c)(3) a charity which has run a student activist scholarship fund in an accountable fashion for decades, has also announced a new scholarship, “The Atheists in a Foxhole Support Fund,” and is making Jessica the first recipient.” (refer to Nal’s link)

  8. OMFG! About time you think you have found the bottom, another mouth breather shows us a new depth. WWJD, indeed!

  9. do realize IN is a midwest State and therefore that is okay? You can always move to RI. LOL

  10. wow, i could actually feel my IQ dropping on some of those

    the one that says he has fourteen guns and will cut someones dick off with a chainsaw, i’m pretty sure that’s ted nugent.

    i’m gonna save some of those, put them on signs and go to tea party rallys. let some of the tea partiers see what kind of people they’re really associating with.

  11. Pete, I am interested in the obsessive interest the right wing seems to be obsessed with sodomy. It is a theme that runs through many of their speeches and published writing. From Jerry Falwell to Rick Santorum, down to commenters on RedState and the other “conservative” blogs, there is a common theme of fascination with anal sex, often with foreign object. What is that about? We know that Rick (Please Don’t Google My Name) Santorum has it, but how about their sycophants and camp followers?

    On Saturdays Kos has a compilation of the week’s hate mail and asks readers to rate the week’s collection and comment on them. What is it about gay sex, anal sex and fellatio that fascinates them so much?

    Here is the 4th Quarter compilation of some of the more interesting hate mail. Before reading, you might want to take a tranquilizer and have a barf bag handy.

    Here is his best of the year 2011 edition of Hatemailapalooza:

    The sad thing is there is a lot more where that came from.

  12. “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” – Mohandas Gandhi

    “They said they were going to do what in My name?” – Jesus

  13. so much for holier than thou

    my favorite of the postings is “gods going to f**k your a$$ with that banner you scumbag”.


  14. My friend Kestrel has pulled together some comments from several web sites that are chilling. Jessica and her family have become targets of vile hate speech and worse. Serious threats have been made against her, and law enforcement is treating the threats as serious. Investigations are supposed to be underway. Kestrel works in radio and is a careful reporter, so his comments and observations are well researched.

    Here is Kestrel’s account:

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