Teen Atheist Who Brought Down Prayer Banner Wins Humanist Award

A teen atheist who brought down a prayer banner that had been displayed in her Rhode Island high school for over half a century will be honored at the American Humanist Association's 71st Annual Conference next week in New Orleans.

Jessica Ahlquist will be given the Humanist Pioneer award at the AHA Conference, which runs from June 7 to June 10. Ahlquist and Damon Fowler, who as a student protested the graduation prayer at Bastrop High School in Texas, will both be given the Humanist Pioneer award at a luncheon next Saturday.

Ahlquist, 16, was the plaintiff in the case Ahlquist v. Cranston, in which the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island ruled in January that a long-standing school prayer banner had to be removed from Cranston High School West because it violated the Establishment Clause.

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The prayer banner was a gift to the school from the class of 1963, the first graduates of Cranston High. Former student David Bradley wrote the prayer banner, which calls on students to reach their academic potential but begins with "Our Heavenly Father" and ends with "Amen."

The Rhode Island teen had argued that a banner with religious reference violated the separation of church and state.

"When I saw it there, I knew it didn't belong," The Associated Press reported her 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."

Although she won in legal court, Ahlquist lost in the court of public opinion. The teen atheist has received threats from classmates through social media sites, a local politician has called her an "evil little thing," and several local flower shops have refused to deliver flowers to her out of safety concerns and for fear that it would have a negative impact on their businesses.

But the atheist community has rallied behind her, with atheist Hemant Mehta, chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher, organizing a "scholarship" fund for the teen atheist that raised nearly $50,000.

Ahlquist has continued her atheist activism, taking to Facebook and Twitter to criticize displays of faith in the public square, creationism, among other topics.

Below is the full prayer on the banner:

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.

This year the AHA's conference theme is "The Atheists Go Marching In." New Orleans streetcar advertisements and highway billboards will inform locals that atheists will be coming to town for the conference.

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