Sadly, in a poll where the question is “Do you think a federal judge was right in ruling that the school prayer hanging on the wall of the Cranston High School West gym was unconstitutional?” the YES answers were woefully trailing the NOs when I voted this morning:
The vote numbers wound up a bit unreadable: 587 to 1,266 with undecided sitting at 10 votes. Results as of noon today look a lot better, 71,338 votes of yes to 18,309 votes for no. (79.1% vs 20.3%) And gosh, gee willikers I wonder why…
Moving to the story itself, teen student and “outspoken atheist” Jessica Ahlquist succeeded in getting a court to take her side regarding a prayer display on the wall of her school auditorium. The move has “incensed this heavily Roman Catholic city” of Cranston, Rhode Island. And that might be an understatement.
A federal judge ruled this month that the prayer’s presence at Cranston High School West was unconstitutional, concluding that it violated the principle of government neutrality in religion.
In the weeks since, residents have crowded school board meetings to demand an appeal, Jessica has received online threats and the police have escorted her at school, and Cranston, a dense city of 80,000 just south of Providence, has throbbed with raw emotion.
State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show. Three separate florists refused to deliver her roses sent from a national atheist group. The group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights.
I commend her bravery. I really do. I can’t imagine I would have raised the issue had I been in her shoes. I would have put up with it, ignored it, or even more likely, never make a connection between what the wall sign represented and why it was wrong to be in a school.
The prayer, eight feet tall, is papered onto the wall in the Cranston West auditorium, near the stage. It has hung there since 1963, when a seventh grader wrote it as a sort of moral guide and that year’s graduating class presented it as a gift. It was a year after a landmark Supreme Court ruling barring organized prayer in public schools.
The sign is printed on t-shirts, too, the image of which was used in the article. Jessica was baptized Catholic but quit believing by the age of 10, she reports, and seeing that sign every day started to make her feel like she wasn’t welcome there. She wasn’t the one who raised the red flags, though, some anonymous parent “filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union.” Jessica got involved in the issue once meetings were being held to discuss that. She talked at every one of them.
Last March, at a rancorous meeting that Judge Ronald R. Lagueux of United States District Court in Providence described in his ruling as resembling “a religious revival,” the school board voted 4-3 to keep the prayer. Some members said it was an important piece of the school’s history; others said it reflected secular values they held dear.
If morality, kindness, helpfulness, honesty, good sportsmanship, friendliness, and good conduct truly are “secular values” then they can certainly eliminate mention of god and still promote the message. An “important piece” of history maybe, but not something that should be hung so prominently in the school.
Does she empathize in any way with members of her community who want the prayer to stay?
“I’ve never been asked this before,” she said. A pause, and then: “It’s almost like making a child get a shot even though they don’t want to. It’s for their own good. I feel like they might see it as a very negative thing right now, but I’m defending their Constitution, too.”
Smart of her to reason it out that way. The choice might not be popular but if it’s the right choice, then it’s the one you have to go with. Tough tits, believers. Take your lumps, cry your tears, and get on with your lives the way you want to lead them, just like Jessica no doubt plans to do. Now is the time to be better Christians and turn the other cheek.