After being called an "evil little thing" by a local politician, receiving violent threats via social media from classmates, and having her home address publicized in a newspaper – 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist has returned to school as the apparently not-so-popular student who managed to have a 50-year-old prayer banner removed from campus.
Ahlquist, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), recently won a court case against her public school, Cranston High School West, that required officials to remove a prayer banner from its walls – and her challenge, and resulting victory, has angered residents.
In the wake of that decision, Ahlquist, a self-proclaimed atheist, has faced rampant cyberbullying from peers and strangers alike. The abuse is so bad, Ahlquist says, that she might have to transfer to another school.
Apparently the teen had underestimated upsetting and offending those not only affiliated with the school and its history with the banner, but also people of faith who feel their First Amendment right to freedom of religious expression is being disregarded more and more across the U.S.
Members of the Cranston School Committee are considering filing an appeal to the ruling to keep the prayer banner, originally submitted by a student, in the school. Committee members themselves have reportedly also been threatened by angry parents – to either challenge the court ruling or get voted out.
"I certainly listen to everyone but I need to act as a fiduciary agent and do what is best for the taxpayers of the city of Cranston," Andrea Iannazzi, chairwoman of the Cranston School Committee, told local media.
The chairwoman said she was waiting for the Becket Fund to complete its legal analysis of the case before deciding on whether it would be worthwhile to file an appeal. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a nonpartisan legal and educational institute "that protects the free expression of all faiths."
The banner in question was first hung in Cranston West's auditorium in 1963 as a credo for the school. When Ahlquist first moved to fight the banner in 2010, claiming that it had a religious purpose, school officials rejected the idea, saying the banner was not religious, but promoted a positive, moral message to students and possessed great historical significance for the school.
In her lawsuit, Ahlquist claimed the banner – emblazoned with a "school prayer" addressed to "Our Heavenly Father" and calling on students to be honest, kind and friendly toward one another – violated her constitutional rights and should be considered state-mandated prayer, although students were not forced to recite the prayer. After nearly two years, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux agreed with Ahlquist, writing in his 40-page argument: "No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that."
So, down goes the banner.
While atheists and civil rights groups applaud the decision said to uphold the Establishment Clause's prohibition of state-sponsored prayer, the debate about religious expression in schools has emerged once again.
As a result, some observers displeased with Lagueux's decision have turned to using the 16-year-old girl as a proverbial punching bag, with many of their actions crossing the line, according to observers.
Much of the vitriolic outspew of that heated debate has fallen on Ahlquist's shoulders – and the pressure is affecting the Cranston student, who was apparently unprepared for the amount of dissention she would face over her court victory.
Several websites have published screen images of threats made to Ahlquist on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the more worrisome comments are: "your home address posted online I cant wait to hear about you getting curb stomped...[sic]" and "I hope there's a lot of banners in hell when your rotting there you atheist... [sic]," as well as numerous threats about physically and emotionally attacking the teenager.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of atheist advocacy group Freedom From Religion Foundation, says the school needs to end its appeals process for Ahlquist's sake.
"This is the only humane and rational and compassionate choice that the school district has," Gaylor told The Christian Post. "They have wronged her and wronged the Constitution. They should be gracious losers, applaud the ruling, admit they did something wrong, get the banner out and let her move on."
Steven Brown, Executive Director of the Rhode Island ACLU, said the pressure of criticism from a wide variety of people has affected the teenager.
"She's really been overwhelmed by some of the extremely hostile and sometimes threatening comments that have been aimed at her," Brown told CP. "She's handling it very well but it's very distressing and disappointing to see the reaction."
The threats and imprecatory prayers against the teen are not representative of the full spectrum of Christian response to Cranston High School West being ordered to remove the prayer banner. Some critics, such as State Rep. Peter Palumbo, have expressed a belief that Ahlquist is simply being used by activist groups to further an agenda. Palumbo, who called the teen an "evil little thing," perhaps jokingly, during a radio interview, has insisted that Ahlquist is "being coerced" by certain parties.
Christians in the End Time Headlines group on Facebook, commenting on the Rhode Island teen's story, have expressed wishes that Ahlquist would find God and recognize the full implications of her actions.
"I pray that her hard heart meets our LORD and SAVIOR CHRIST JESUS," Dan LaRosa wrote. "She is a politician no more no less. I pray that she begins to understand HIS love and sacrifice for us."
One commenter, leaving a call for violence against Ahlquist, was sternly rebuked for his "idiotic" remarks by several others visiting the page.
"She obviously does not know LOVE which is what being a Christian is all about," Venita Leonard Harris Rich wrote in chastisement. "Jesus Christ is God in human form who died on the Cross because He LOVED us. Humans could not reach Him so He came down to Earth to reach us ... poor Jessica needs to connect the dots and so do you."
Eddie McMillion took it a step further, defending the teen and noting that she needs prayer and not threats.
"We may not like what she stands for or her even. Yet she does have her right just as we do [to] say what is on her mind. I feel that now and maybe before she thought this would bring her attention. ... I don't [think] threats are called for. She does need prayer," he wrote.
There are other Christians, however, who feel the whole discussion is misguided and that Christians are failing to capitalize on this case as a means of being witnesses for Christ.
Eric Beuhrer, President of Gateways to Better Education, a group that works to bring Christian resources legally into schools, says the banner's removal is immaterial from Cranston and Christians in the school should use this as an evangelism opportunity.
"I understand the feeling that religion often time is under attack. But while I think symbolism has its place when it comes to education, I'm more interested in substance over symbolism," Beuhrer told CP. "When I read [about Cranston's case], I thought this was the perfect opportunity to get the prayer off the wall and into their lives."
Beuhrer thinks Christian clubs at the school should distribute cards with the prayer written on it so students can proactively remind themselves of the prayer daily. He says it was "ironic" that it took the banner's removal to finally lend attention to the prayer.
Although Ahlquist seems to be taking many of the hits in stride (her newly-minted YouTube account name is "AnEvilLittleThing"), local police appear to be taking the threats against the teen seriously.
The Cranston Police issued a Jan. 13 statement saying they were "conducting a proactive investigation into threatening comments," made toward Ahlquist by "combing through" social media websites and arresting the authors of any dubious threats. There have been no reports, as of yet, of arrests having been made.
Brown, of the ACLU, praised the school and police, saying he thought both agencies were "taking these threats seriously." One student has already faced "internal discipline" for threats directed toward Ahlquist, according to the school.
To be clear, however, Ahlquist has experienced widespread support from online and real-world communities, too. Atheist organizations across the country have invited Ahlquist to receptions over the last year, and social media giant Reddit.org's community of atheists has inundated the teenager with praise and support.
Reports suggest Ahlquist's return to school has thus far been incident-free, but Ahlquist is considering transferring schools given the turbulent atmosphere of Cranston West.
In a recent Twitter message Ahlquist ruled out at least one possibility: "[I don't know] what I'm doing next year, but I can promise that I will not be going to a Catholic school. Ever."