At Cranston West High School in Cranston, Rhode Island, a mostly innocuous banner has hung in the school gym for several decades. The banner, titled “School Prayer,” exhorts “Our Heavenly Father” to make students desire to improve themselves in a number of ways. In full, the banner reads:
Our Heavenly Father,
Grant us each day the desire to do our best,
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically,
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others,
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win,
Teach us the value of true friendship,
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.
For most of its history, the banner was either appreciated or largely ignored by the students. However, last year, an anonymous member of the community filed a complaint to the ACLU, and the school board held several public meetings to get feedback from the community to decide whether they should take the banner down or fight to keep it up. Several clips from these meetings showing arguments from both sides of the issues (mostly theists, of course) are available on YouTube on the channel of a user by the name of AtomicSteve. I’ve watched them all, and noticed a few recurring themes: first, that atheists should just sit down and shut up; second, that the banner is totally nondenominational and you’d have to be crazy to be offended; and third, that the city is already spending outside its budget and there’s no way they’ll be able to afford a fight with the ACLU without hurting their schools and other services.
So, of course, the school board voted 4-3 to keep the banner up, despite Supreme Court precedent and the District’s own policy that “the proper setting for religious observance is the home and the place of worship.”
To file suit, the ACLU needed an “aggrieved party” who had standing to make a legal complaint. Cranston West sophomore Jessica Ahlquist, a sharp-witted young woman and proud atheist, was brave enough to stand up in a very God-soaked community and declare that she’d help with the fight – not just for herself, as a non-believer, but for students of minority religions who might take offense at the banner or feel threatened by the exclusive atmosphere it engenders in a public school.
Ahlquist’s bravery has earned her a sizable following on Facebook in the Support the Removal of the Cranston High School West Prayer group, where over 600 people from around the nation and the world have shown their support and appreciation for what she’s doing. (Drop by and leave a message to let her know you’re behind her – she’d love to hear from more people.) She was also featured in a story in the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Network News newsletter. She’s also received a lot of
negative Christ-like attention from Godly folks commenting on the various news sites that mentioned the fight. Here’s a juicy example:
It was by the grace of God that this despicable little monster of a girl has the freedom to express her anti-beliefs and nationally broadcast her extreme tolerance: the atheist way. I try really hard to be a good Christian, but this is just too much. This is what happens when kids don’t get discipline, and when parents are deadbeats. Boo these people, I hope they lose their homes.
The school board’s primary defense of the prayer is that it was “non-denominational,” a word used conveniently to refer to anything generically religious (usually generically Christian) rather than belonging to a specific sect. However, Ahlquist argues, and I agree, that a prayer mentioning “Our Heavenly Father” and ending in “Amen” is not non-denominational. As was pointed out during the school board meetings, many religions don’t consider God to be a father, many religions aren’t monotheistic, and many religions don’t end their prayers with “amen,” so it isn’t really possible for the prayer to be all-inclusive.
What so many of the banner’s supporters don’t seem to understand is that the freedom of religion does not extend to the government. Yes, people are allowed to worship however they want, wherever they want. But they can’t use government property and government money to fund their religious activities. That’s all there is to it. This really should be a simple case. When a school hangs a banner that promotes a monotheistic, Judeo-Christian message, that’s the state respecting an establishment of religion, and impinging upon the free religious exercise of students of other religions.
Apparently, she’s inspiring other students to stand up against religious intrusion into public schools. Let’s hope it’s a trend!