Jessica Ahlquist is a sophomore at Cranston Public High School in Cranston, Rhode Island. She has recently been in the news for advocating the removal of a prayer banner in her school’s auditorium which contains the worlds “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen”. While this may seem like a clear cut separation of church and state issue, the school is fighting the lawsuit after the board voted 4-3 to do so. Jessica has graciously accepted our offer to do an interview after she and I met at the American Humanist Association Conference in Cambridge a few weeks ago.
Tell us a little bit about what is going on in Rhode Island for those readers who are unfamiliar with your story:
The issue started over the summer when a concerned parent filed a complaint to the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). When the school received a letter threatening litigation if the prayer was not removed, the school committee formed a sub-committee to discuss legal action. Several public meetings were held and I attended nearly all of them, speaking out against the prayer. I firmly believe that the prayer has absolutely no place in a public school and attempted to show the school committee my reasoning. After several tedious meetings in which many religious residents made hateful remarks towards me and other atheists, the vote came down 4-3 in favor of keeping the prayer, thus deciding to fight the ACLU in court. I signed onto the case and have become the only plaintiff in this lawsuit: Ahlquist v. City of Cranston.
How did your decision to ask for the removal of the banner come about?
I was not the person who first complained. However, when I heard about the issue, I recognized that it was more important than just a prayer on a wall. It sends a bigger message than that. They’re breaking the law and violating The Constitution, no matter how slightly. I’m big on doing the right thing no matter how silly or insignificant it seems.
How has the school community and the community at large responded to your action?
The majority of the students and faculty at my school, as well as the rest of the community, are very religious. Predominately Catholic, they feel that the prayer should stay because the majority would rather see it to remain. I have certainly faced quite a bit of hate at school for doing this. Even before litigation, people were gossiping. However, it has since escalated. When I walked into homeroom the morning after the press release, I was immediately faced with people who were voicing their dislike for me and shooting looks. When the pledge was said (I stand, but do not recite it), several students in my homeroom turned to me and yelled “UNDER GOD”. The teacher said and did nothing. I’ve also heard an array of gossip about me. People have said that I’m doing this for attention and money. I’ve also heard that one teacher said to her class that I was “just looking for attention.”
How did the ACLU become involved with the suit?
The ACLU was involved from the beginning. They received a complaint directly from a concerned parent and wrote a letter to the school demanding that it be taken down.
Why do you think the school has decided to defend the banner despite what seems a clear violation of the separation of church and state?
To be completely honest, I think the school committee had their minds made up from the moment they saw the majority wearing signs around their necks reading “Keep Original Banner.” Also, most of the board members are quite religious themselves. So it seems to me that it’s an issue of faith and politics. Unfortunately, they overlap constantly. I have a lot of respect for the three members who voted to take the prayer down though. I think they did the right thing despite the overwhelmingly biased crowd who showed up to the meetings and fear that they could lose the next election because of this.
Has your family been supportive of your decision to oppose the banner?
My father has been the most supportive person in my life. He’s the reason I’m able to do all of this. My younger sister, Julia, has also been really amazing. Whenever I have a bad day or just really need someone to talk to, she’s there to cheer me up. I also received huge amounts of support from my extended family. My uncle, Steve Ahlquist, the writer of www.cautionchurchahead.com, has been very encouraging. My uncle, Dan, and my cousin, Ayla have also been there for me the whole time. I’ve also had the support of my wonderful friends!
How do you handle some of the biting criticism launched at you for your fight for the removal of the banner?
It can be really hard at times, I won’t deny that. At first, I felt really depressed. I would go to school each day and there would be so many people glaring at me and making me feel so alone. In the beginning, I was shocked. How could these people I’ve always been nice and friendly with suddenly think that I’m evil? It hurts that they base their opinions of me on nothing but my religious and political views.
I’ve been able to cope though. I’m lucky to have such caring and supportive friends. When someone makes a comment or I see something on the internet, I just remember that I’m doing the right thing. I’ve learned not to care what hateful people think. For every negative comment out there though, there are so many more with a positive nature. I’m so appreciative to everyone who has given support. The most rewarding part of this is getting to know such wonderful people and being able to encourage equality for everyone.
Tell us about the mayor’s visit to your school the other day:
The mayor, Allan Fung, was invited to speak about his Chinese-American heritage and the difficulties he has faced in the political world. When he was finished, people were able to ask questions. One student asked for his opinion on the prayer in the auditorium, which we were in at the time. He pointed to it and said “I think that prayer should stay exactly where it is!” At this, nearly every student in the room started cheering and jumping up and down. Obviously I remained seated with my hands in my lap and felt a quite alone.
We both got to meet Richard Dawkins at the AHA conference in early April. Did he have any words of encouragement for you?
Margaret Downey introduced me to him and the first thing he said to me was “Ah so you’re the hero.” He told me that he thinks I’m doing a brave thing. It was so encouraging to hear that coming from Dawkins himself!
Can you tell us a little about the Facebook group you started?
When I first heard about the issue, I wasn’t sure how to show my support for the parent who filed the complaint or the ACLU. I turned to Facebook and made a page entitled “Support the Removal of the Cranston High School West Prayer” so that others who felt the same could speak up. It’s proven to have been extremely successful. We now have over 600 members and I thank them all for being so supportive and kind. It’s so inspiring.
What is it like handling the press and the celebrity you have gotten from this issue?
I really don’t consider myself a celebrity. It’s so odd when people recognize me or compliment me on my bravery. For instance, when I met you, you said “you’re my hero” and I think I giggled. It’s so bizarre to hear that when I never expected anything like this to happen. Setting out on this adventure, I never considered it brave. I simply saw it as something that needed to be done.
What would you say to other students in public school across the nation about your story and what would you tell them if they were also considering opposing a religious moniker or affiliation within their school? I know this issue has been raised where I am from Missouri.
It is important that people, especially the younger generations, understand that our rights are important. The people who fought to establish this country and the freedom that we have did so because they truly believed that they could. Our rights as American citizens are not untouchable. In order to keep these liberties, we all need to stick up for them and speak out when they are violated. It’s certainly not easy and it can be scary at times, but know that there are millions of others out there who feel the same and would be happy to offer their support.
There are people who tell me that they’re atheists, but they really don’t care about this issue. If they would open their eyes a little wider and see all of the damage that is being done by religion in our society, they may not feel that way. All violations are important. We need to take baby steps, starting with the smallest of issues.
Don’t be afraid to do what’s right. You can defend yourself and speak up. I, as well as so many others, will be there for you. If you are thinking of stepping up, feel free to contact me. I’d love to give my support!
Favorite Book & Author:
That’s such a difficult question! I’m quite a bookworm. I’ll read just about anything that seems interesting.
I absolutely love music. I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite band though because I love so many and such a huge variety.
Any political leanings?
I’m liberal. I support the decision that causes the least amount of suffering and improves human lives. I’m also a firm believer in equality, such as gay rights, and science.
Again, no particular favorite.
Embarrassing Childhood Moment?
I’ve always been incredibly shy. Just about any time I was required to speak in class or some kind of audience, I would feel really embarrassed. I remember being so scared and worried that I would stammer and stutter during presentations. I cringe thinking about how red and nervous I must have been.
Fun Fact about RI?
We have a giant blue bug!!
How do you feel about the Flying Spaghetti Monster?
I think it’s a brilliant and hilarious analogy. A lot of people seem to think that religion is off-limits, but it’s not. People are allowed to make a joke to
I really love art and music. I also enjoy reading and writing about nearly anything.
What do you want to do professionally?
That’s a good question. I’m open-minded and thinking hard about what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. All I know now is that I want to help people and make a difference.
This interview was conducted by Ben Conover. He is a freshman philosophy major at Boston University who will be attending Saint Louis University in the Fall and is honored to have the privilege of interviewing Jessica.