By now I’m sure we are all familiar with the Jessica Ahlquist case in Cranston, RI. The New York Times provides a helpful summary:
She is 16, the daughter of a firefighter and a nurse, a self-proclaimed nerd who loves Harry Potter and Facebook. But Jessica Ahlquist is also an outspoken atheist who has incensed this heavily Roman Catholic city with a successful lawsuit to get a prayer removed from the wall of her high school auditorium, where it has hung for 49 years.
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.
Looks like they have some charming folks up there in Cranston.
The banner is labeled “School Prayer” and 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.
You might be inclined to think that this is all innocuous, and that maybe some fights just aren’t worth picking. The hysterics and threats, coming from elected representatives no less, shows precisely why this is such a big deal. Tell the people who are outraged about the court’s decision that this is no big deal, and that they should just shrug their shoulders and move on. That so many people have this much emotional energy wrapped up in the banner is precisely why it was so important to challenge it.
Farther into the NYT article we come to this:
Many alumni this week said they did not remember the prayer from their high school days but felt an attachment to it nonetheless.
“I am more of a constitutionalist but find myself strangely on the other side of this,” said Donald Fox, a 1985 graduate of Cranston West. “The prayer banner espouses nothing more than those values which we all hope for our children, no matter what school they attend or which religious background they hail from.”
That’s total nonsense of course. The main value taught by the prayer has nothing to do with moral character or kindness or any of the other good stuff. Rather, the point of the banner is that we must ask for God’s help to strengthen our character. That certainly is not an idea that can be supported by people of any religious background. This point was made very well by a letter writer to the Times:
There are only six words in the text posted on the wall of Cranston High School West that are the cause of the problem. They are “School Prayer,” “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen.” Take them out. The text can then read, with slight modification:
“May we each day 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. May we be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win. May we value true friendship and always conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.”
Who could possibly object to that?
Indeed. That really would be a banner that espouses universal values everyone could get behind. But do you think for one second the outraged town’s folk would be mollified by that? Would the people currently exhorting Cranston to embark on a hugely expensive and likely doomed appeal would think that’s an acceptable compromise? Of course not, because the outrage has nothing to do with a desire to build moral character in school children. It has everything to do with promoting religion. It has to do with the fact that there’s a huge segment of the religious population that simply cannot accept that it is not government’s job to promote their religious beliefs.
Jessica Ahlquist is a hero. Brown University should offer her a full scholarship. I’ll let her have the last, very eloquent, word:
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.”