If a person is going to act fearlessly, then it’s best done when young. At least that’s how it worked out for me. Jessica Ahlquist is such a fearless person. Jessica took on the established and entrenched points of view of a large suburban community in Cranston, Rhode Island, and won. She had the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, family, and supporters throughout the country, but her battle was an individual one that resonates very clearly in this election year when some in power wish to destroy the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation between church and state.
The New York Times (“A Brave Stand in Rhode Island,” January 31, 2012) championed Jessica’s cause in an editorial and covered her case in a news article (“Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against Prayer,” The New York Times, January 26, 2012). Jessica is a self-proclaimed atheist. She took her high school to task for its display of a student’s prayer that has hung on the wall of Cranston High School West’s auditorium since 1963. I taught briefly at Cranston West during the late 1970s, but I can’t remember the prayer in the school auditorium.
Jessica came to atheism after her mother fell ill when Jessica was in elementary school. And that was what she identifies as being the break she had with religion. Jessica’s case is all the more interesting because Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in the nation. She was labelled “an evil little thing,” by a Rhode Island state representative as her case moved to federal district court in Providence. Several florists in the area refused to send flowers that had been sent to Jessica from supporters around the nation. Local police had to provide escorts for her as the case heated the raw emotions that religious issues often tend to do. A 2009 graduate of the same school called Jessica “an idiot” in The Times news article.
In a wise decision, the Cranston School Committee voted not to appeal the federal district court ruling that supported Jessica’s attempt to have the prayer removed from her school. However, a stunned ACLU-Rhode Island representative, Steven Brown, commented on the apparent delay in removing the prayer banner from the school’s auditorium in response to the mayor of the city’s position that legal fees accrued in the case must be settled before the banner is removed. Brown questioned: “…whether this is an attempt by some petty officials to dredge up a new excuse to avoid complying with the Court’s decision” (“ACLU wants prayer banner removed ASAP,” WPRI.com, February 22, 2012).
Rhode Island holds a place of spectacular importance in the development of the doctrine of separation between church and state as is reflected in the First Amendment. Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, was driven out of Massachusetts in the 17th century for bucking the power of the King of England and local religious authority. Williams took King James to task for the king’s pronouncement as being the sole owner of the title to Massachusetts’s colonial lands. Williams had the audacity to declare that land would have to be bought from native tribes rather than taking title to something that he believed the British and colonists did not own. Williams further infuriated those in authority by forming alliances with the native population. As if this wasn’t enough in the eyes of the Church of England, he drew a firm line in the sand between church and state when he founded Providence Plantations in 1636 after being driven from Massachusetts for his views. I think that Jessica is the sort of high-minded person who Williams would be very, very comfortable with though they are separated by over three centuries.
Religion has come to occupy an important place in the political culture of the US. The far right has successfully injected religion into every political race since becoming a national presence in the 1970s and initiating the culture wars. The right has made religion a litmus test for candidates in local, state, and national races.
The First Amendment and I are no strangers to issues of conscience vis-a-vis Rhode Island. In 1989, I fought a First Amendment case against the Cranston School Committee. I had refused the invitation to lead a recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance before a Flag Day ceremony at an elementary school in the community (“Echoes of the Sixties,” CounterPunch, August 7, 2008). (I had not recited The Pledge since the Vietnam War.) I won a grievance against the principal who had asked me to lead The Pledge after she began a campaign of harassment following my refusal. I received no support from any group during the grievance process because I had not actually been forced to recite The Pledge. What I recall most from the episode was the near universal condemnation I received from my fellow teachers and union for taking this controversial stand. I left the school district for a similar job in a nearby school district after having been transferred out of the school where I had refused the offer to lead the school in the recitation of The Pledge.
So, while it’s easy to rally around a cause such as Jessica’s for those who support freedom of speech and conscience, what I imagine wasn’t easy is how Jessica persevered against such bald-faced hostility.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.