Nearly two years after atheist student Jessica Ahlquist won a lawsuit against her high school for its auditorium's prayer banner, which had stood in place for nearly 50 years, the school has finally replaced the empty wall space with a large secular mural that removes any reference to God or religion.
The new 5-by-10-foot mural that is mounted on Cranston High School West's auditorium wall includes a play on each letter of the school mascot, Falcons, with each letter representing a guiding attribute for students to remember, including "Foster, Affirm, Learn, Choose, Overcome, Nurture, and Strive." On the opposite side of the auditorium sits an identical sign holding the school's creed. The signs were presented over the weekend in a very low-key, private ceremony that did not involve a media presence or public officials.
For nearly 50 years, Cranston West High School in Cranston, Rhode Island had an 8-foot banner with a school prayer mounted on its auditorium walls that called for "Our Heavenly Father" to grant students with the power to succeed morally, mentally, and physically. The school was forced to remove the prayer banner in early 2012 after Jessica Ahlquist, then a 16-year-old student and self-described atheist at the school, filed a joint lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union seeking to have the sign taken down, arguing that its reference to religion was an unconstitutional conflict of church and state at a public school.
Ahlquist won her lawsuit, with U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux ruling in January 2012 that the prayer banner was unconstitutional and needed to be removed. The banner was ultimately removed in March, and a blank space remained in the area where the banner used to be until the Class of 1963 decided to donate the new "Falcons" mural in honor of the school's 50th anniversary. The 1963 class had also donated the original prayer banner in 1959 because it was the first class to graduate from Cranston West.
Janice Bertino, a 1963 class member, told the local Providence Journal, that the new, secular mural that graces the campus walls serves as the final chapter in a contentious debate regarding church and state that gained national media coverage in 2011. "The community is healed," Bertino told the local paper. "There is no more controversy."
The lawsuit's ruling in January led to an upsurge of raw emotion in the heavily Roman Catholic town of Cranston, with residents crowding the school's board meetings to demand an appeal and Ahlquist reportedly receiving threats on her social media page for her role in the lawsuit. The tension in the town became so heightened that for a short time, Ahlquist was escorted to school by police. Ultimately, the school district chose not to appeal Judge Lagueux's decision, citing excessive costs and a potentially long court battle.
Although some heralded Ahlquist for her outspoken position on religion at an especially young age, others argued that she was focusing too much on the religious aspect of the prayer banner and failing to see that the banner encapsulated the school's decades-long history and values.
Following the lawsuit's ruling, 1985 Cranston West graduate Donald Fox told the New York Times that although he is a self-described "constitutionalist," he does not believe the prayer banner should have been removed. "The prayer banner espouses nothing more than those values which we all hope for our children, no matter what school they attend or which religious background they hail from."
Ahlquist's lawsuit may have gained major media coverage at the time, but there are dozens of lesser-known lawsuits in the country that challenge religious freedom and constitutionality. In the small town of Kountze, Texas, a judge ruled in May that cheerleaders were allowed to continue to hold posters with bible verses and religious messages at football games after being temporarily blocked from doing so by the school district. In Muldrow, Oklahoma in May, a Ten Commandments plaque was pulled from the walls of the local high school to avoid a lengthy legal battle after an atheist student complained to the Freedom From Religion Foundation that in turn sent a letter to the school district requesting that the plaque be removed.
Although the Muldrow school district did comply with the FFRF request, the small, tight-knit community argued against the decision to remove the plaque, with dozens of community members attending school board meetings in the hopes that the monument would be able to stay. Muldrow residents were so determined to keep religious freedom in their town that they even contacted State Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw) to get his support on the issue.
"A nation that refuses to allow educators to teach children right from wrong will become a corrupt nation, where sin prevails, evil abounds and everyone does as they please," Bennett told the Seqouyah County Times back in May.