Jessica Ahlquist, a teen from Cranston, Rhode Island, attends school with a police escort because she dared to challenge–legally and successfully–the presence of a religious banner hung in the gymnasium of Cranston High School West (CHSW). CHSW is, lest anyone be unaware, a public high school. However, a majority of the attendees and alums are Catholics. This is a remarkable story that exhibits the long-standing righteous principle of “Don’t confuse me with the facts,” that Republicans and righteous religious zealots have long stood by. The banner, which appeals to the “Heavenly Father,” violates a 1962 court decision, Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) which ruled that school-mandated prayers were unconstitutional. The case launched by the ACLU on Ahlquists’s behalf, was based on several other landmark Supreme Court Cases as well, including a 1992 decision, Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), that contested school prayer in another Rhode Island—yes, you read that correctly—another Rhode Island high school. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in that surprising decision that affirmed the unconstitutionality of the school’s decision to have a rabbi deliver a prayer at the high school graduation ceremony. One can’t help but wonder if Rick Santorum has been spiking the waters of Rhode Island.
Rhode Island’s ironic history, in which Roger Williams founded the original colony so as to establish a space for religious freedom after being kicked out of Massachusetts, is being appealed to by Jessica Ahlquist and many of her supporters. Roger Williams, a staunch detractor of forced religious belief, declared any attempt to compel one’s conscience to believe in God to be a violation and “a spiritual or soul-rape.” (Roger Williams and Edward Bean Underhill, The Bloudy Tenent for Cause of Conscience and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Examined and Answered, ch. 80) At several places in the 1644 text, Williams declared it to be more of a rape in fact “more abominable than God’s eyes than to force and ravish the bodies of all the women in the world.” (Williams and Underhill, The Bloudy Tenent , ch. 62). I don’t endorse Williams’ misogyny; and yet, I think it’s important to note his misogyny alongside the vehemence of his claim that compulsion of conscience is an ultimately heinous act. Notwithstanding the discordant note, the appeal to return to secular values in the public space is a long-standing staple of the Constitution.
The multiple ironies that strike me, however, stem from the sheer hostility & misogyny that Ahlquist’s request has engendered among her classmates, the denizens of Cranston, and right-wingers generally. One of CHSW’s recent graduates, Janine Hansen, now the head of the cheerleading squad suggested that Ahlquist “keep her opinions to herself.” Others suggested that the Ahlquist’s quest and the Court’s ruling violated their “freedom of religion.” Now, I realize that we are in a space where Republicans as well as Democrats and Constitutional lawyers (such as POTUS) are indifferent to the US Constitution, but apparently the “enlightened community” surrounding Ahlquist is unaware that “freedom of religion” is a principle that insists that the state has no business imposing upon private individuals’ abilities to practice their beliefs. Removing a Christian prayer from a public school (READ: the STATE) would be consistent with this principle. It doesn’t prevent people from praying if it is their wish to do so, but it prevents the state (READ: the CHSW) from inflicting the Christian prayer on any unwilling denizens (READ: atheists, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, OR religious folks who nevertheless who abide by the separation between church and state, etc.).
Ahlquist is an amazing young woman. We need many more like her, fighting this fight bravely even as she is singled out and scapegoated, to remind us to resist the homogenizing effects of “popular opinion.” She has been sent email threats, isolated, made a target of Facebook bullying, and faced an overwhelming vitriol in the face of her attempts to get the public school to abide by the Constitution. A RI State Representative, Peter Palumbo cursed her as “an evil little thing.” Of course, my contempt for him–in the face of the overwhelming abuse of his authority to scapegoat a teenage student for political profit–knows no bounds.
Part of Ahlquist’s motivation to challenge the banner is that it made her, as an atheist, feel alienated. She admits that she’s been a bit confused by the hostility to her position. As she suggests, she’s “defending their constitution, too.” I’m not sure the ensuring furor has alleviated the alienation, but she’s in very good company if she still thinks that the Constitution might have some principles worth fighting for. Unfortunately, for liberals and progressives who have tried to challenge the retreat from the Constitution over the last decade, alienation has become an embraceable feature, one that assures us that we are on the right side.
On the other hand, maybe Ahlquist needs to reconsider her opposition to the banner, because apparently her classmates really need the prayer in their sightlines constantly in order to remember what it says:
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
The bullying tendencies of unthinking follow-the-crowd zealots is a bit like the insipid network news monitors in airports: in abundance, unceasing, without obstacle to disrupt its homogeneity and banality of thought. So, the principles of fundamentalist Christian love are to be withheld in the face of a dissenter, and even better, the principles of the US Constitution will be deliberately misread to show the victimhood of the believers: Freedom of speech is disrupted by removing a religious banner from the a public high school. Perhaps they have a lot more in common with POTUS than they ever imagined: Both love to twist the Constitution around for strategic self-interested endgoals.
The CHSW School Board met on Feb. 15 to determine whether or not to appeal the Federal District Court’s ruling. It looks like the decision was controversial, but ultimately, they decided not to appeal the ruling, so the banner will be permanently removed. The decision to appeal would have cost them an additional $500,000. As it is, Ahlquist’s lawyers are asking the School Board to pay $173,000 in legal fees.