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Ahlquist Inspires Two Others To Contest Prayers At Their Schools

Jessica Ahlquist, the ACLU's plaintiff in the suit contesting the prayer banner on the auditorium wall at Cranston High School West, is credited with inspiring two other high school students to contest graduation prayers at their schools.

Jessica Alqhuist, the 16-year-old student and atheist activist who is the plaintiff in the ACLU's lawsuit against the school district over a prayer banner in the school's auditorium, has inspired two other students to contest the constitutionality of prayers at their school.

Harrison Hopkins, a senior at Laurens County High School in South Carolina, spoke out against a prayer at his school’s graduation after talking with Ahlquist.

A similar story comes from Louisiana, where Damon Fowler, a senior at Bastrop High School complained about prayers scheduled for his high school graduation. He asked that they be removed and school officials complied after being warned of a possible lawsuit by the ACLU.

Because of his stance, he said he was disowned by his family, ostracized by his community and attacked by a school official in a local newspaper.

Fowler said part of his motivation was drawn from seeing Ahlquist describe her story in a YouTube video.

“It was very inspiring,” said Fowler, “I didn’t think that one person would be able to do all that. It was a motivator.”

Despite living in the deep south where Christian beliefs dominate, Fowler decided to challenge the prayers to be read at his graduation “because they were breaking the law and they would continue to do that unless someone said something.”

Fowler notified school principal Stacey Pullen that he intended to contact the ACLU if the prayers were not removed from the graduation proceedings. Pullen, according to local reports, contacted the school’s attorney and then decided to remove the prayer and replace it with a moment of silence.

“It was very hostile,” said Fowler about the community’s reaction to his stance, “I didn’t know very many people who didn’t stand up against me.”

One Bastrop teacher, Mitzi Quinn, told the local newspaper, “And what’s even more sad is this is a student who really hasn’t contributed anything to graduation or to their classmates.”

Fowler said his parents wouldn’t talk to him and so he moved in with his brother in Texas. Death threats prevented him from going to one of the graduation practices.

At graduation, senior Laci Rae Mattice who was to lead the moment of silence instead announced that “I feel that I can’t go on without giving glory to my Lord today. I want to ask for the Lord’s blessing upon us,” and recited the Lord’s Prayer over the microphone before the moment of silence. The crowd responded with loud cheers.

“It was disappointing,” said Fowler, about the prayer being recited, “It completely alienated me from my graduating class. They rallied against me and I was the enemy there.”

The ACLU responded to the incident with a strongly-worded letter asking that the school apologize to Fowler, discipline the student and explain to their community the district’s legal duty to prohibit prayer from school-sponsored events.

“It is certainly not surprising that the student did not obey the School’s express directions,” wrote the ACLU in its letter, “for she has been educated by a school system that has itself chosen to flout constitutional requirements. The school system’s longstanding disregard for constitutional norms has predictably bred a culture of noncompliance.”

“There are very few Christians that support me,” said Fowler,” But the ones that did really showed true Christian values, like don’t be mad at me, the basic policy of Christianity is to forgive, which I think a lot of people have not done.”

Harrison Hopkins, like and Fowler in Bastrop, underwent a similar scenario after he asked that a planned prayer be removed from his high school graduation at Laurens County High in South Carolina.

After speaking with Ahlquist on Facebook he decided to challenge the prayer outright. He contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation about the scheduled prayer at his high school. FFRF then contacted the district.

According to local reports, Laurens County Superintendent Billy Strickland decided after consulting with the school’s lawyer that the prayer would be removed from graduation “so we do not create a basis for a legal challenge.” He did not say he would stop a speaker from praying, instead stating that speakers’ views are their own.

Once a local news story was written about the prayer being removed from the ceremonies Hopkins became the center of the controversy. He said one person started several petitions to get the prayer back on the graduation brochure. His classmates also wrote hateful things about him on Facebook.

“There will be a prayer on june 2nd!” wrote Hannah L. Higgins on Facebook, “Your not taking that away from us! Enjoy burning in hell!!”

“You know you have to be a real low life to not have pray at graduation,” wrote Kyle Eustace, “What kind of stupid messed up person would want that. If you don’t want to here a prayer close your damn ears. They make earplugs. Get a life you freak.”

Hopkins said his community has 14 churches on a 5-mile stretch of road.

At graduation, the student body president, Josh Lynch, took it upon himself to deliver the prayer, which elicited cheers from the audience. Hopkins said he was dismayed.

“[My critics] try to assert that this is a Christian nation, one nation under God, things like that,” said Hopkins, “You can tell they feel that anybody that’s not a Christian is wrong and that they are in the right.”

He said seeing Ahlquist contest the banner in Cranston was definitely an inspiration to him.

"She's two years younger than me," said Hopkins, "And seeing her being able to stand up and fight against it at her school, and she's had a lot worse reaction in her town than I had. If she can do it that much younger than me, there's no reason I shouldn't be able to do it."

"She's been supporting me ever since it started," said Hopkins.

Both Hopkins and Fowler said they knew the graduation prayers were illegal.

In Lee v. Weisman, a landmark Supreme Court case that may be familiar to many Rhode Islanders, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that prayers at graduation ceremonies violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The plaintiffs in the case were the Weisman’s, a Providence family. They were contesting the decision of Robert E. Lee, the principal of Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, to invite a rabbi to speak at the ceremonies.

However, the question of whether the prayer banner at Cranston West is unconstitutional will be up to the courts to decide. The case is slated to go to court sometime in August.

But for now, Ahlquist is content that her own stance against the prayer is inspiring others to stand up for what they believe in.

“It’s probably the thing that I hoped most for,” said Ahlquist about inspiring others. 

“It was a very tiny dream of mine, that it maybe could inspire others, but at the same time I was trying to be logical that it probably wasn’t going to, but if it did that would be great and it’s definitely really exciting. It makes the whole thing even more worth it.” Ahlquist said.

Liberty Janus July 01, 2011 at 05:00 PM
Part 2. Yes, she appears to have been surprised at the degree of sheer hate she received, and continues to receive, from believers (though it shouldn't surprise anyone how hateful many Christians are - even hardened atheists sometimes have difficulty adjusting to it) but has adjusted and continued with a just cause. You have your facts wrong, and yet Jessica's opponents have continued to say them over and over in these Patch posts for months now, in bondage to an ideological position regarding the ACLU. But no rational argument will convince you that the ACLU serves the constitution, and that rational people join with them of their own free will to try to preserve this country from the constant efforts by religious people to force their ancient superstitions into public institutions in violation of the constitution. The fantasy world is the one that embraces a hateful mythology from a time of breathtaking ignorance and superstition and believes that it's appropriate to foist it on a public school system.
James Croft July 01, 2011 at 08:16 PM
It is important that all children, regardless their religious faith or none, feel welcomed in their school community and are not subject to officiall-sanctioned proselytizing. A large banner in the school auditorium which promotes religious belief, despite its long history, clearly gives the impression that the school endorses belief in God. As a public school it should be welcoming to all and not suggest that religious belief is endorsed by the institution. Jessica is standing up for the Constitution and for the principles of freedom of religious expression and belief, arguing that the state should not influence our religious choices. She is a true patriot, and deserves our support.
Stoney February 02, 2012 at 06:28 PM
JTP: You're not intellectually mature enough to be posting on the internet and yet - here you are....
Stoney February 02, 2012 at 06:30 PM
Bigotry, ignorance, theocracy, tyranny - the best that Christian love has to offer...
Joe The Plumber February 02, 2012 at 08:33 PM
These kids all need therapy. Just as their grown-up counterparts that post on this blog.

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