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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.

Paul Auger June 28, 2011 at 05:47 PM
Jim the issue here is bigger than a wall decoration it is the scary rise of the religious right that is growing stronger each day. Many believe that if left unchecked with in the next 50 years the christian right will become the American Taliban. We must address it now before it gets out of control, we see evidence of this all over. Bishop Tobin spends more time at the state house trying to bend the secular law books to fit into the Churches laws advocating against the passage of marriage equality and civil unions. We see evidence of this in education. The Texas Board of ED rewrote their history and science curriculum to reflect their religious views completely ingoing the empirical evidence to the contrary. Our health care choices are being limited by a group who want to dictate the health care options of OTHERS according to THEIR mythology, rather than science. The religious right wants to hinder the advancement of stem cell research based their religious ideals which have no empirical evidence to support them. The Taliban also wants to force people to follow their holy laws by making the law of the land reflect their religion. The Taliban would like to have their fables taught as FACT, even evince proves them wrong. The Taliban like our Christian right wants to control the choices of all people . This is not Pathetic it is a fight to keep the US from going in the same direction that other countries have gone when they where taken over by religious fundamentalists.
Robin Lionheart June 28, 2011 at 09:48 PM
Rhodegirl, repeating ad nauseum your false witness that the illegal mural entitled “SCHOOL PRAYER”, addressed to “OUR HEAVENLY FATHER”, and ending in “AMEN”, is “NOT, I repeat NOT, a prayer” will never make your blatant lie true. Among the moral ills you associate with young people, I notice you don’t include “disrespect for the law”. Probably because you’re in the “damn the law, keep the mural” camp.
Jim Hackett June 28, 2011 at 09:49 PM
Paul, the banner has been there for 50 years, so cloaking this banner as "the rise" of anything is pure fantasy. Linking the Taliban here demonstrates a delirium I'm not sure I want to understand. I just read the banner and think, "that's a good message for kids today." When viewing the time and effort some are spending to take it down indicates to me they lead very shallow lives, if this takes on that much meaning. Candidly, maybe they could use some religion - any religion - anything. Just get a life. That's just how I see it.
Robin Lionheart June 28, 2011 at 10:00 PM
Rhodegirl hyperbolizes, “Someday, we won't even be able to display the flag, our symbol of freedom. I hope I'm not around to see that day.” If that day ever came, the American Civil Liberties Union would be there to defend tirelessly your First Amendment rights. The ACLU fights on the First Amendment’s side, always.
Robin Lionheart June 28, 2011 at 10:09 PM
It speaks well of critics of the mural that they expend time and effort standing up for religious minorities, even in the face of public hatred.
Larry June 28, 2011 at 10:34 PM
Jim, that's ridiculously bigoted. Nobody needs religion to be good. Millions of atheists around the world are good without god. We are your neighbors, your co-workers, maybe even your family and friends. We do charity work, we help people in need, we serve our communities. We have lives. We have morals. We have values. We don't need religion to bring meaning to our lives. And neither do these kids. This banner tells kids that a higher power is responsible for providing depth of character and moral values. That isn't fair, and it implies that some students are somehow less moral than others because of their beliefs or lack of belief. Richard Wade did very well when he posted what the banner should say instead... School Pledge I pledge To do my best each day. To grow mentally and morally as well as physically. To be kind and helpful to my classmates and teachers. To be honest with myself as well as with others. To be a good sport and smile when I lose as well as when I win. To value true friendship, and be a true friend. To always conduct myself so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.
Paul Auger June 29, 2011 at 12:40 AM
Jim this is not a matter of personal taste or preference, it is a matter of what is constitutional. The court will base its decision on the law not on a popularity contest. The banner has been up for 50 years ILLEGALLY. According to your logic if we break a law long enough, the fact that the law is being broken is no l0oger relevant.When is that point Jim? 10 years? 20? 30? 40? As for my Taliban reference, the religious right, like the Taliban, seeks to use civil law to impose their holy laws on all US citizens , regardless of their religion or lack there of. That's how the Taliban started, well that is half the story, the other half is people like you who refuse to see that the religious right is posturing to set up a theocracy. Are we at the point that they are killing people? Not yet. Except for abortion providers. We could head that way if we don't stop them now! I find it interesting that you think people NEED religion to be good. This implies if you didn't have reli0gion you COULDN'T be good. Are you saying that without an imaginary sky daddy you would rape, kill and plunder? Is god the only thing keeping you from mugging old ladies? THAT'S SAD! I have more respect for those who treat others well, for no other reason than they see the benefits to the community, and want to take part in behaviors that promote the survival of the species rather than fear of a cosmic cop! You do good out of fear, I do good out of free choice. Which is more noble to you?
Jim Hackett June 29, 2011 at 12:48 AM
You guys can rationalize your existence however you wish. Have at it. I just think you need to get a life if those three words bother you that much.
Paul Auger June 29, 2011 at 12:55 AM
So ypu dont like rationality? you fear logic? You wont adress the issues we brought up? or you CAN"T? you rather run away than dialog. The words dont bother me, the irational protection of them does
Jim Hackett June 29, 2011 at 03:12 PM
It's pretty clear where I stand. The zealotry with which you approach this issue and your inane arguments is what's illogical. I think you people need to get a life. It's three words. Get over it.
Robin Lionheart June 29, 2011 at 05:03 PM
They should follow Jim Hackett’s example and use ~logical~ argumentation like “It’s clear something is missing in their lives.”, “they lead very shallow lives”, “you need to get a life”, “I think you people need to get a life”. By the rule of ad hominem, that means they’re wrong.~
Paul Auger June 29, 2011 at 05:15 PM
No Jim the Zealots are those who what to protect and illegal display. As far as my augments being insane I would welcome and opportunity to be enlightened by you. How are they insane? I gave concrete examples of how the religious right is clearly using the civil law system to fashion laws based on their doctrines. I also have shown how the religious right is attempting to dictate what is taught in the classroom making school curriculum line up with church teaching even if the data that want to present is just plain WRONG "the earth is 6,000 years old" would be a good example on this. I demonstrated how fundamentalist Christians are slowing the progress of science by interfering with stem cell research and dictating which medical treatments people can and cannot receive based on myth rather than science . Stem Cell Therapy ans abortion are clear examples . I have shown how some extremist have killed in the name of their doctrine (the murder of DR. Tiller) I have gone on to show how some people say that the only reason they do not harm people is because their god says not to, rather than self control. What is illogical or in sane here. Can you offer evidence to debunk me? if so please do I would welcome it. It seems all you do is cry and moan when somebody offers evidence to make a case for something you don't like. In stead of offering counter evidence you resort to name calling. Is that because you know you are fighting a losing battle?
Don Reaves June 29, 2011 at 06:09 PM
I'm glad to hear voices such as Paul Auger's clarifying the significance of protests against such "trivial" acts as expressing a desire for the xian god to "bless" a civil event. The xian Taliban is really determined to enforce their mythologies on all of us and their purposes are furthered every time some "trivial" action is accepted by the rest of us.
Jim Hackett June 29, 2011 at 07:07 PM
Look, I'm not here to try and change your mind. I'm just stating what I think, and, I think you people are nuts. You talk about the "rise of the religious right"? Well, if you people have demonstrated anything here, it's that something else is rising - a bunch of fanatical wackos who can't get past three words on a banner which, by any definition, has an overwhelmingly positive message for kids today. I'll never understand why you get your panties all knotted up over this. You definitely need to get a life.
Larry June 29, 2011 at 10:51 PM
If it's just a few words and it's not that important, Jim, why is it so important to keep it there? If you went to or saw any of the public meetings about this sign you'd know that most people there are fighting to keep the banner. Why aren't you calling them out for wasting their time?
Jim Hackett June 29, 2011 at 11:47 PM
Because it's there and has been for fifty years. Tens of thousands of people have come and gone through the school without a peep until a few wing nuts come along to impose their crazed philosophies.
Paul Auger June 30, 2011 at 04:17 PM
Jim when we look at your posts we see that they are based on nothing. "Because it's there and has been for fifty years. Tens of thousands of people have come and gone through the school without a peep" What does it matter how long it has been on display? If enough people break the law for long enough should we ignore the violation? You go on "wing nuts come along to impose their crazed philosophies” What philosophies are being imposed and how are they crazed? All I see is people posting about the constitutionality of the banner I don't see any philosophies being pushed. Please cut and paste them into a post. You suggest that the banner is good for kids, but you don't explain HOW. I think it is harmful to teach kids to look outside of themselves for answers. We saw the results of this on September 11th. You talk about Zealots. A Zealot is one who will fight for a position based on raw emotion they cannot back up with empirical evidence. A zealot will fight for something even if they are shown evidence to the contrary. A zealot is one who when we ask them to educate us about the evidence for their side they resort to personal attack and make themselves out to be a victim. So who is the zealot in this thread? You are willing to fight for an idol a banner no matter what. You offer emotional based augments but refuse to dialog and support your claims. You call names and try to appear victimized. YOU ARE THE ZEALOT! I would invite you to actually respond to the points I made.
Paul Auger June 30, 2011 at 05:24 PM
Jim when we look at your posts we see that they are based on nothing. "Because it's there and has been for fifty years. Tens of thousands of people have come and gone through the school without a peep" What does it matter how long it has been on display? If enough people break the law long should we ignore the violation? You talk about "wing nuts come along to impose their crazed philosophies” What philosophies are being imposed? How are they crazed? I see is people posting about the constitutionality of the banner not philosophies being pushed. If you do please cut and paste them into a post. You suggest that the banner is good for kids, but don't explain HOW. It is harmful to teach kids that they must look outside of themselves for answers. We saw the results of this on September 11th. You talk about Zealots. A Zealot will fight for a position that is based on raw emotion and they cannot back up with empirical evidence. A zealot will fight for something no matter what even if they are shown evidence to the contrary. A zealot when we asked to educate us about the evidence for their side resorts to personal attack and make themselves out to be victims. Who is the zealot in this thread? You are willing to fight for an idol, a banner, no matter what. You offer emotional augments but refuse to dialog and support your claims. You call names and try to appear victimized. YOU ARE THE ZEALOT! I would invite you to actually respond to the points I made.
Paul Auger June 30, 2011 at 05:25 PM
Jim when we look at your posts we see that they are based on nothing. "Because it's there and has been for fifty years. Tens of thousands of people have come and gone through the school without a peep" What does it matter how long it has been on display? If enough people break the law long should we ignore the violation? You talk about "wing nuts come along to impose their crazed philosophies” What philosophies are being imposed? How are they crazed? I see is people posting about the constitutionality of the banner not philosophies being pushed. If you do please cut and paste them into a post. You suggest that the banner is good for kids, but don't explain HOW. It is harmful to teach kids that they must look outside of themselves for answers. We saw the results of this on September 11th. You talk about Zealots. A Zealot will fight for a position that is based on raw emotion and they cannot back up with empirical evidence. A zealot will fight for something no matter what even if they are shown evidence to the contrary. A zealot when we asked to educate us about the evidence for their side resorts to personal attack and make themselves out to be victims. Who is the zealot in this thread? You are willing to fight for an idol, a banner, no matter what. You offer emotional augments but refuse to dialog and support your claims. You call names and try to appear victimized. YOU ARE THE ZEALOT! I would invite you to actually respond to the points I made.
Joe The Plumber June 30, 2011 at 06:29 PM
Hatred, threats, aleination, lonelyness, anxiety, disappointment...... The price of unpopular dissent. Someone (the ACLU) should educate these kids on the cost of public dissent before they use them to further their own agenda.
Joe The Plumber June 30, 2011 at 06:31 PM
xian....... would that be like xthiest xhole?
Liberty Janus July 01, 2011 at 12:09 AM
What utter nonsense JTP, to suggest that Jessica is being "used" by the ACLU. It's like some mass delusion with you people when you talk about others' simply trying to maintain fundamental constitutional principles. Jessica is a reasoned, articulate, and brave young woman making choices for herself. She's aware of the costs of defending the US constitution against myopic irrationality, but has gained, already, far more than this battle will cost her. She's had opened to her an entire community of like-minded people and a huge support system of rational people and future opportunities, plus the opportunity to inspire and to collaborate with others seeking to prevent this ridiculous totalitarian myth-making from overwhelming this country in unreason, fear-mongering, and brute majority-rule. This is likely one of the best things that will ever happen to her. What a choice she has to make: between the likes of world class thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker on one hand, who she was able to meet because of her position, and the likes of her Christian classmates screaming "UNDER GOD" at her, and JH telling her to get a life. As Paul has repeatedly demonstrated, these ancient myths harm people and harm the nation. They're not just a few "innocent" words on a wall, and the founders knew this - hence the constitutional separation. You people spew your poison into the well and curse the people trying to keep the water safe to drink.
Joe The Plumber July 01, 2011 at 12:53 PM
From past articles and interviews it doesn't appear to me that this child was mature enough or ready for the onslaught of criticism and negative reaction, nor the isolation of being a dissident. That's all I was trying to say. That is fact. Not poison. And if you do not think that elements within the ACLU would use these children, however righteous their cause and their ideals are, then you are living in a fantasy world. These cases are the fuel of the ACLU fund raising and marketing efforts.
Larry July 01, 2011 at 02:43 PM
woah. I get your point now. Yeah. That's a long time. Not nearly as long as slavery was legal in the US, but still a long time. I mean, if black people were being used as slaves for hundreds of years and without a peep, why is it fair that a few wing nuts get to come along and change that? You've really shown me the light, Jim Hackett. Your logic is impeccable
Liberty Janus July 01, 2011 at 04:57 PM
Part 1. You are simply incorrect about Jessica. She has has done numerous interviews, posted videos explaining her position, attended conferences for like-minded individuals, assumed a volunteer position as a coordinator for the CFI, begun Facebook and blog pages, worked with other students opposing similar constitutional infringements, etc. Next to expressions of hate towards her from Christians and grateful expressions of support from non-believers and some believers who actually support the US constitution, one of the most common comments from supporters has been close to amazement at her fortitude, bravery, and maturity. She's already become an inspirational figure due to these qualities. Contrast this with the behavior of many of her schoolmates shouting religious hate and making threats, or with most adults opposing her with their petulant religious bigotry, for that matter, and she appears to be a virtual tower of maturity.
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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