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.