Posted by: SteveInCO | 20 Feb 2012

Open Letter to the Cranston, Rhode Island School Board

Official seal of Cranston, Rhode Island

Image via Wikipedia

A Bit of Background

A student at West Cranston High in Rhode Island noticed a prayer banner hanging in the auditorium.  It had been there since ca. 1963, the year after the Supreme Court ruled that public school prayer was unconstitutional.  The banner is titled “School Prayer”, begins with “Our Heavenly Father”, and ends with “Amen.”  They raised a complaint, which apparently came to nothing.

Later on Jessica Ahlquist, another student and an atheist, also complained about this violation of the US Constitution.  She went to the school committee for Cranston, RI, and suggested that they remove “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen” (I don’t know if she suggested removing “School Prayer” as well; if she didn’t I think she should have.)  The remainder of the text on the banner basically exhorted the students to be good sports, take defeats in stride, etc.; perfectly unobjectionable.

The school committee refused to do this.  Jessica got together with the ACLU and went to court.

The judge, a conservative Republican (!) found the Prayer Banner unconstitutional and ordered its removal.  He allowed it to merely be covered while the administration decided whether or not to appeal.

Jessica Ahlquist found herself in the middle of a fecal tornado of invective and threats to her personal safetyHere is a post on another blog with some screen shots of the sorts of things that showed up on her facebook and twitter accounts.  It became bad enough that the police had to get involved.  Jessica has had a police escort to her classes ever since.

When the Freedom From Religion Foundation decided to send Jessica flowers congratulating her on her victory three different florists in Cranston refused the business, furthermore, one more florist in a neighboring town also refused to deliver the flowers.  They were forced to go to a florist in Connecticut to get the delivery made.  (Admittedly, getting a delivery from the next state is not as big a deal in Rhode Island as it is here almost dead center in Colorado, but it was still an hour drive each way.)

Meanwhile the school administration dragged its feet deciding what to do about an appeal.  They heard quite a bit from irate citizens, at least one had to be escorted out of the meeting by police after throwing things at the school board.

Finally, they planned to make a decision on 16 February (last Thursday).

My Response

I sent this e-mail to the Cranston, Rhode Island school committee, asking them not to appeal the prayer banner ruling.

Even in elementary and secondary school at the foot of Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, thousands of miles away and over a mile above the sea, I was taught that the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations got its start as a haven for people persecuted in the Puritan settlements in Massachusetts, and that Rhode Island has since that time been tolerant of religious differences.

Unfortunately, it is now becoming a byword for religious _intolerance_  in every non-Christian forum I am personally familiar with, used in the same breath as “Alabama,” “Tennessee, ” “Mississippi” or “Oklahoma.”  (I am not exaggerating!)  Why is this?  Because of the community reaction to Jessica Ahlquist’s entirely justified, entirely legal complaint against her publicly-funded school’s attempt to proselytize (or at the very least, endorse) a specific religion–something Roger Williams would not have stood for.  When she needs police protection to go to school, and local businesses will not deliver to her (so that business in Connecticut have to take up the slack–I am sure the CT economy appreciates the help), something is truly rotten there.  What has happened to religiously tolerant Rhode Island?

It does not help that the school board has already spent tax money on a futile (and wrongheaded) attempt to keep the banner.  Nor that you are dragging out a decision on whether to throw good money after bad by appealing the decision.  You could simply have removed “School Prayer,” “Our Heavenly Father,” and “Amen” from the banner, but chose to duke it out in court.  And now some people in Cranston have the gall to complain that _Jessica_ is wasting tax dollars on this!  (Abiding by the constitution is not a waste of tax dollars; rather, implementing the constitution is why taxes are imposed in the first place!)

I urge the school board to remember what Rhode Island and Providence Plantations originally stood for.  I urge the school board to show some leadership.  I urge them to accept the judge’s ruling.  I urge them, further, to condemn the misbehavior towards Jessica Ahlquist that has brought so much negative attention on Cranston, the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, and even the United States.

Do the right thing.  Instead of continuing to make things worse, put this issue to bed.  Please.

The Decision:  A Victory for Religious Freedom

Well, it did turn out that they decided not to appeal the prayer banner ruling.  Not unexpectedly this brought a surge of fresh abuse on Jessica Ahlquist as well as another volley of all the same silly arguments, all made as if they expected us never to have heard that one before.  (“Oh, the majority of her classmates wanted the banner?  Wow, I never, ever, thought of that even though that argument has been made a thousand times already!  I guess I’d better change my mind!”)

But so far as I know, no prominent organization has been orchestrating the hate attacks–this has been spontaneous–so I expect the attacks from around the country to fade as this becomes old news.  But they will not fade to zero and I’m sure the local ostracism (florists won’t deliver to her, for crying out loud) will continue much more strongly (still going down somewhat, just not as much) until Jessica moves or dies of old age.  Such is the price of standing up for one’s rights in the face of Christian privilege.

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