Atheist Student Fights to Remove School’s Prayer Wall

A 16-year-old atheist student remained positive Thursday that the law is behind her in her fight to remove a prayer mural from her Rhode Island high school.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Cranston School Committee were in federal court Oct. 13, debating the constitutionality of a school prayer painted on the auditorium wall of Cranston High School West.

Jessica Ahlquist, a junior, had been opposed to the mural since her freshman year, reported The Associated Press. The prayer mural, which has been on the walls since the 1960s, urges students to strive for academic excellence.

The mural features a prayer that begins with the words “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen.” Ahlquist said the mural was offensive to non-Christians and filed a case in federal court in April.

The Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit on Ahlquist’s behalf, alleging the prayer makes Ahlquist feel “excluded, ostracized and devalued as a member of the school community” because she does not share the religious beliefs on display.

U.S. District Judge Ronald R. Lagueux, who took the case under advisement, delayed the case for an hour Thursday to visit the school and see the mural for himself.

Cranston High School West maintains that the prayer mural is in a secular setting and not religious. The city’s representative, Joseph Cavanagh Jr., also said the mural is a historical artifact and therefore does not serve a religious purpose.

But Ahlquist’s attorneys refuted that.

“Both the purpose and effect of displaying the School Prayer is to communicate official approval of student prayer as part of the educational experience and tradition,” an action that is in direct violation of the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause,” Lynette Labinger, the ACLU lawyer representing Ahlquist, stated, according to Fox News.

Ahlquist has been subject to personal attacks and intimidation from other students and members of the community ever since she publicly opposed the display her freshman year, the ACLU said.

The school website does not display any religious material or leanings and no mention is made of the prayer mural or the case against it.

Cranston High School West voted 3-2 in favor of keeping the mural in March, citing its historic value.

Cavanagh said the prayer had not been recited in school since 1962. He said the prayer was written while other traditions of the school were being developed, such as a mascot, creed and school colors. He also said the school has never received any complaints about the prayer for nearly four decades since it was created.

Lagueux commended both sides on their briefs and arguments, but didn’t predict when he would issue a ruling, the Providence Journal reported.

Gabrielle Devenish contributed to this report

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