A 16-year-old Rhode Island girl and self-described atheist has won a legal battle against her high school over a prayer banner displayed on campus, with a federal court ruling Wednesday that the Christian mural, erected more than 50 years ago, has to be removed.
The banner’s removal is a reflection of "what true American values are," said Jessica Ahlquist, who attends Cranston High School West in Cranston. The teen insisted that the banner had no place in the high school and church and state had to remain separate.
"When I saw it there, I knew it didn't belong," Ahlquist told reporters, according to The Associated Press. "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."
Meanwhile, the city’s attorney Joseph Cavanagh Jr. said the prayer banner will be covered up, while the school committee decides whether to appeal the ruling. According to the AP, the lawsuit will be discussed at the committee’s next meeting.
Michael Traficante, a committee member, said he was "extremely disappointed" in the ruling and that the banner was removed because of "one" person’s opinion.
"What's ironic is this banner has to be removed because one individual after 50 years believed it to be offensive because of her disbelief in any religion," Traficante stated.
The city argued that the banner had no religious significance and was part of the school’s history. It was given to Cranston High from the class of 1963, the first to graduate from the school. Former student David Bradley – now in his 60s – wrote the prayer banner, which calls on students to reach their academic potential. However, it begins with “Our Heavenly Father” and ends in “Amen.”
The full prayer reads:
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. Amen.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee has said he agrees with the court ruling and that the banner is inviolation of the Constitution's statement on separation of church and state.
The Rhode Island sector of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city and Cranston High on Ahlquist’s behalf in 2011. According to court filings, the 16-year-old first noticed the banner in her freshman year and started a Facebook petition for its removal.
Now in her junior year, Ahlquist has reportedly received criticism for causing the prayer’s removal and is unsure about whether she will return to finish out her senior year at Cranston High School West.
Critics and supporters alike have taken to the web to express their views regarding this case.
"So, this atheist forces her warped belief system down everyone else’s throat, by thwarting the laws and twisting them to suit her own views," wrote Barney Collier. "She taught them a useful lesson in civics? What’s that, how to twist and contort the laws to rape the justice system?"
"Blouise," another commenter, however disagreed, saying, "It is shameful that so many are completely clueless as to what ‘separation between church and state’ means. The ORIGINAL INTENTION was to KEEP THE GOV’T OUT OF THE CHURCH BUSINESS."
The First Amendment of the Constitution reads regarding the issue of "church and state," which does not appear in the text: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."