An atheist group has raised more than $40,000 as "scholarship" fund for Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year-old student from Rhode Island who sued her public school and got a nearly 50-year-old Christian prayer banner removed from its walls.
Atheist Hemant Mehta is running an online scholarship fundraising campaign for Ahlquist, who attends Cranston High School West in Cranston, on his blog FriendlyAtheist.com. He says he has received $40,976 "to make her future better than her present by giving her the opportunity to go to college without worrying about things like tuition and books."
Mehta, whose bio says he is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago, will end the fundraiser on March 1. The money will be given to the American Humanist Association, which will hold onto the money in a trust fund and provide it to Ahlquist when she is ready to go to college.
The atheist group has claims that Ahlquist is being targeted for getting the banner removed.
On Jan. 11, Ahlquist won a legal battle, orchestrated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), against her school over a prayer banner – which begins "Our Heavenly Father" and ends in "Amen" – displayed on campus. A federal court ruled that the Christian mural had to be removed.
A school board voted last Thursday not to appeal the court ruling due to its inability to meet the rising legal costs needed to defend the banner. Ron Valiquette, a townsperson who attended the meeting, warned the crowd that the banner was not just a hyper-localized, isolated issue, and that the debate has far-reaching effects on religious expression in the country. "What's happening now is an attack on any type of religion," Valiquette said. "This is about more to us than one atheist objecting when there is something on the wall that doesn't pertain to her."
The banner was a gift from the school's inaugural graduating class in 1963, and features a moral credo written by a student. Ahlquist alleged it conflicted with her belief. "When I saw it there, I knew it didn't belong," Ahlquist was reported as saying. "And every time that I saw it, it was a reminder that my school wasn't doing the right thing and that my school didn't necessarily support me and my views."
Following the school board's decision not to challenge the court ruling, Ahlquist wrote on her Twitter and Facebook pages, "Congratulations, to all of us." She has said she is planning to transfer schools at the end of the year.