Like many people, I was a teenage malcontent, minus the rebellion, often uncomfortable with who I was and what was happening around me. At various times, I worked hard to become somebody new and improved: class vice president, even though I was terrified of public speaking; field hockey player, though I couldn’t run a mile without wheezing. And though, even back then, these goals did not define my life – or really solve anything – had I ever felt perfectly content, I might not have been so motivated to push myself, both in school and later on.
For the past two years, Jessica Ahlquist has led a fight to have a religious banner removed from her public high school auditorium in Rhode Island. She was a freshman at Cranston High School West when she first saw the paper banner. Under the heading “School Prayer” the creed begins, “Our Heavenly Father,” and ends with “Amen.” For nearly a half century, the banner has hung in the auditorium – it was written by a Cranston West student to commemorate the opening of the school – where it reminded kids to have “the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful.”
Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in the country, and like many of her classmates, Ahlquist had been raised religious. Unlike most of them, however, she’d begun to identify as atheist, after her mother, a nurse, got sick. Ahlquist rejected the God she felt had abandoned her. So she decided she wanted the banner removed, and when her early efforts to persuade the school board to comply were unsuccessful – the board argued that the banner was an important part of school history – Ahlquist joined forces with the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. Together, they argued that the banner was a violation of the First Amendment, which guarantees government neutrality in religion. Last month, a US District Court judge agreed.
Ahlquist is right to pursue the banner’s removal. It was a violation of the law even when it went up in 1963, a year after a landmark Supreme Court case ruled that establishing and reciting school prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. But constitutionality wasn’t Ahlquist’s primary argument. More than that, she said, the banner just made her uncomfortable. As she told The New York Times, “It seemed like it was saying, every time I saw it, ‘You don’t belong here.’ ” According to court documents, Ahlquist, a self-described shy girl, said the banner made her feel “excluded, ostracized, and devalued.” When, at a school assembly, the town’s mayor spoke in favor of keeping it, Ahlquist felt “very uncomfortable, alone, and isolated.”
Yet as arguments go, this one is flawed. Ahlquist didn’t belong at Cranston West any more than most of us belonged in our own high schools, whether our primary defect was being too nerdy, too “jocky,” too artsy, too skinny, too fat, or too nondescript. High school is not a place where everyone (or, arguably, anyone) is comfortable. Teenage alienation and angst aren’t things that schools can safeguard against, nor should they be trying. Students have a right to feel safe, but they don’t have a right to fit in.
Perhaps because the heart of Ahlquist’s argument was so clearly personal, the West Cranston community responded in kind. At School Committee meetings, people threatened her with damnation on Judgment Day. On talk radio, state Representative Peter G. Palumbo called her “an evil little thing.” Her family has received threatening letters, and Ahlquist was threatened with violence by strangers and classmates, including this tweet from Cranston West honor roll student Caleb McDevitt: “definitely laying it down on this atheist tomorrow, anyone else?” She’s needed a police escort to get to class. When the Freedom From Religion Foundation sought to send Ahlquist flowers to celebrate her victory, no local florist would deliver to her.
The collective message was clear in the most deplorable way: You, Jessica Ahlquist, don’t fit in. In ruling in her favor, it seems the court acted as much in response to the anger and venom directed at her as to what’s outlined in the Constitution. Last week, the School Committee decided not to appeal, and it was expected that the banner would be taken down within days. As of this writing, the prayer remains hanging, though covered by a piece of wood – it’s not enough to spare Ahlquist from her own discontent, which will probably remain long after the banner is torn down.