God, Protect Us From Some of Your Followers - Atheist, Receives Threats Over Prayer Banner Ruling

Huffington Post (1/27/12)

Weeks after a judge ordered the removal of a prayer banner at a Rhode Island school, the atheist teen at the center of the controversy continues to receive threats as the school board decides its next move.

Since 2010, Jessica Ahlquist had been urging school officials to remove the banner from the auditorium at Cranston High School West.

The 8-foot banner features a prayer a student wrote in 1963 — a prayer some consider part of the school’s history.

On Jan. 11, federal judge Ronald R. Lagueux ruled it was unconstitutional for the banner to hang at the public school, The New York Times reports.

But the fight to remove the banner has come with consequences for the teen.

Ahlquist has encountered online threats and bullying and has even taken some time off from school, WPRO News reports.

Nevertheless, the 16-year-old says she plans on graduating from Cranston West next year.

Today, the prayer is covered by a tarp, as residents and school board members aren’t ready to take the banner down without a fight.

First, the controversial ruling was a popular topic at a Jan. 25 budget meeting, and police even had to be called suppress the crowd, WPRI reports.

Now, a meeting has been scheduled for Feb. 16 during which school officials will hear public comment on the issue, Providence’s NBC 10 reports. The board will then decide whether or not to challenge the judge’s decision.

Ahlquist, an atheist who grew up Roman Catholic, was not the first to take issue with the presence of the 49-year-old banner.

A family filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010, though Ahlquist eventually became the spokesperson for the plea and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, according to The New York Times.

At least one religious leader says Ahlquist should be able to stand up for what she believes.

“…We are proud to stand with others in Cranston who desire that Jessica and every young person be encouraged to learn to talk about their differences in peace,” Rev. Leigh McCaffrey told Providence’s NBC 10.

When the school committee addressed an initial complaint from the ACLU at meeting in August 2010, two religious leaders, a reverend and a rabbi, agreed the banner should be “altered or removed,” according to the court document obtained by the Providence Journal.

In March 2011, the committee met again to hear public comments on the issue. Twenty-six adults spoke at the meeting, 24 of whom were in favor of keeping banner. Even one speaker who described himself as an atheist threatened to “assemble a group of people to surround the school and protect the Mural,” if the ACLU took down the banner, the document states.

At the end of the meeting, committee member Michael Traficante announced the decision to keep the banner in its current state. Later that month, the committee decided to place an explanation next to the banner, detailing its decision to keep the prayer without alteration for “historic and cultural reasons.”

The ACLU formally filed suit on April 4, 2011.

The prayer reads as follows:

Our Heavenly Father,Grant us each day the desire to do our best,
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically,
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others,
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win,
Teach us the value of true friendship,
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.



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