In Cranston, R.I. – a state that began its life as a colony conceived with the purpose of protecting people from religious persecution – a 16-year-old girl is going through hell because of her refusal to believe in it.
Jessica Ahlquist, the daughter of a firefighter and nurse and a student at Cranston High School West, now requires a police escort to safely walk the halls of her public high school. Florists refuse to deliver her flowers, and she faces threats online from members of the community who are outraged over her stand against school prayer.
Not just any school prayer – the school prayer. Yeah, Cranston High School West had one, written by a seventh grader and hung, eight feet tall, on the wall of the school’s auditorium in 1963; the year after the United States Supreme Court struck down school-mandated prayer as a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment separation of church and state. The display was a gift from that year’s class of graduating seniors.
“Our Heavenly Father,” the prayer reads, “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 honor to Cranston High School West. Amen.”
The New York Times reports that Ahlquist was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church as a young girl, but stopped believing in God when she was 10. She had been unaware of the prayer adorning the school’s walls until it was brought to her attention by another student during her freshman year. From then, every time she saw it, it struck her more and more.
“It seemed like it was saying, every time I saw it, ‘You don’t belong here,’” she told the Times.
A parent – not one of hers, presumably – filed a complaint about the prayer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which led to a series of hearings on what to do about the display. Ahlquist spoke at all of them, imploring the board and the school to take down the prayer. After a meeting that a federal judge described as having all the tones of “a religious revival,” the board voted 4-3 to keep the prayer on the wall and fight it out with the A.C.L.U. in court.
Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that the prayer was a violation of government neutrality in religion, and since then, the school board has had the prayer covered with a tarp while it decides whether or not to appeal the judge’s ruling or take the prayer down from where it’s hung for almost half a century.
Meanwhile, Ahlquist continues to suffer the stones and slights of a community the Times describes as deeply religious and Christian. The harassment, I believe, could be described as anything but Christ-like. And if the mission of a Christian is, as I believe it to be, to bring people closer, to love your enemies so that they may come to know the boundless love of Christ, then it can be assured that these actions are only pushing Ahlquist further away.
I do believe in Christ as my Lord and Savior. But, I also believe in the Constitution, under whose law I’ve been blessed to be born. I believe that the Constitution protects religion from government intrusion, and protects government from religious intrusion. It is not the role of government to proselytize or otherwise enforce prayer. When I want religion, I go to church or, more often than not, I turn to the Bible and personal prayer, seeking not assistance, but direction from the Almighty. When I want education, I go to school. One ought not to trespass upon the other.
Ahlquist is an atheist, and I admire and respect – hell, I even understand and empathize – with her position. My own faith is rather tenuous and has been tested mightily through the years. But it is my belief that, as her world turns against her, Jesus would stand beside her. And so would James Madison.
As a Christian, I stand with Ahlquist. And I stand with her as an American as well.