Jessica Ahlquist, the plaintiff in the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union case against the Cranston School District over a prayer mural hanging in the Cranston High School West Auditorium, said she has endured harassment, threats, and lots of "flak" over her decision to fight.
"It has been a very long and difficult year for me and my family and we're just so glad it has finally been decided," the 16-year-old Ahlquist said this morning at the ACLU's offices in Providence, one day after a federal court judge ordered the banner be removed. "I've had to deal with a lot of harassment and negative flak from people who disagree with my views and opinions, but it's all worth it."
Ahlquist today was dubbed "an evil little thing," a "clapping seal" and a "pawn star" on WPRO, a talk radio station, by state Rep. Peter Polombo. Students have threatened to beat her up. An anonymous commenter posted her home address on the Providence Journal's Web site last night. Readers on this website and others that covered the story have called her "a little snot," a "witch" and accuse her of seeking attention.
"Even if lots of kids in school hate you, even if there's nasty comments on the Internet, it's important to stand up for something you believe in," Ahlquist said. "I could have said nothing but I did what I believe in and I'm glad I did what I did."
It is unclear whether school officials will push to continue the battle over the prayer mural and move to appeal U.S. District Court Ronald Lagueux's decision. School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi said that the School Committee will discuss the matter next Tuesday, but most likely will not vote on the matter. In the meantime, the auditorium is now locked in order to comply with the ruling and the banner has been covered by a tarp.
The banner was erected in the auditorium at the high school in 1963. It begins with the phrase "Our Heavenly Father" and ends with "Amen," and hung in place for more than 50 years before it became the center of controversy. David Bradley, the author of the prayer and a graduate of the class of 1963, said he was tasked to write the prayer and the creed as a student council member in 1960 at the request of his adviser and the school administration.
The ACLU raised the issue in July of 2010 after a complaint from a parent. In a letter to the district, Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU, wrote "there can be no question that the school auditorium’s prayer display violates a core principle of the First Amendment."
The district refused to remove the banner and instead, held a series of public hearings during which several School Committee members and a majority of residents who attended argued in favor of keeping the banner in place, citing its "historical significance" and highlighting its positive and moral message. The committee ultimately voted to defend the banner and the ACLU promptly filed suit last May.
Ahlquist said she knows that there are other students in the school who agree with her and will probably feel a sense of liberation now that Lagueux's decision is final.
She said she was "thrilled" when she heard about the decision and "wasn't surprised" because "in my mind I knew what we were doing was right and I was sure the judge would understand that."
Lynette Labinger, lawyer for the ACLU, said that the case was a clear-cut case and no argument could be made to refute the fact the mural was a clear violation of the Establishment clause and a constitutional infraction.
"Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island Colony, opposed government sanctioned or mandated expressions of religious significance and [the school district] attempted to reject and trivialize the message to preserve it," Labinger said, noting that school officials aruged there was no religious significance to the mural and emphasized its historic value.
"They attempted to reject and trivialize the message to preserve it," Labinger said.
The case "demonstrated the rancor and divisiveness" that arises when church and state mingle, Labinger said, and the law prevailed in this case "because of our heritage and core beliefs."
Since the decision, Cranston Police said they are investigating threats made against Ahlquist on the Internet, including numerous Twitter posts by some of her classmates declaring that she should be beaten up. Some of the comments could constitute cyberbullying and represent violations of the Safe Schools Act — recently passed legislation that establishes a unified state policy against cyberbullying approved by the Rhode Island General Assembly last year and signed into law by Governor Lincoln Chafee last summer.
The legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Beatrice A. Lanzi (D-Dist. 26, Cranston) defines cyberbullying as "the use by one or more students of a written, verbal or electronic expression" that "causes physical or emotional harm to the student," "places the student in reasonable fear of harm to himself/herself," or "creates an intimidating, threatening, hostile or abusive educational environment for the student."
Yesterday, one Twitter user said "this girl honestly needs to be punched in the face."
Another user bragged "your home address posted online i cant wait to hear about you getting curb stomped you ****ing worthless c***."
And some users using their real names identified themselves as classmates of Jessica Ahlquist, the plaintiff, one saying "definelty laying it down on this athiest tomorrow anyone else?"
Police said they are patrolling Ahlquists' house and the school this weekend.
In a post on the blog RIFuture.org today, Steve Ahlquist, Ahlquist's uncle and founder of the Humanists of Rhode Island, said "To the credit of the Cranston School Committee, when I contacted them with my concerns, they were quick to assure me that the Cranston Police have been investigating these threats since last night, and that they are taking this issue very seriously."
Many Twitter users have deleted their posts but many have been saved permanently in screen shots and in postings on various blogs on the Internet, including this one. *Warning, link leads to content that is unsuitable for children.*
Ahlquist, who did not attend school on Friday, has said that she is determined to return to school next week and show she is not afraid to stand up for herself and her beliefs.