First Amendment

Student Faces Backlash After Winning Legal Battle Over Prayer Hanging on School Wall

A Rhode Island girl who successfully waged a legal battle to get a prayer removed from the wall of her high school auditorium is now suffering the wrath of her deeply religious neighbors.

Jessica Ahlquist, 16, has gotten online threats, and police have escorted her at school. A state lawmaker called her “an evil little thing” on a talk radio program. And three local florists have refused to deliver flowers that a national atheist group tried to send to her.

All because Ahlquist, an avowed atheist, won a federal lawsuit last month over an eight-foot paper prayer that has hung on the wall of the auditorium at Cranston High School West since 1963, when that year’s graduating class presented it as a gift to the school, the New York Times reports.

For Jessica, who was baptized in the Catholic Church but stopped believing in God when she was 10, the prayer was an affront. “It seemed like it was saying, every time I saw it, you don’t belong here,” she told the Times.

The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a complaint over the prayer with the school board last year, but the school board, after a rancorous series of hearings at which Jessica spoke, voted to keep it. The ACLU then asked Jessica if she would agree to serve as the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to get the prayer removed.

A federal judge ruled last month that the prayer’s presence in the school was unconstitutional because it violated the principle of government neutrality in religion.

The prayer has been covered with a tarp since the ruling. The school board has indicated it will announce whether to appeal the decision next month.

Jessica told the Times she has no regrets about taking a stand. “It’s for their own good,” she says of the townspeople. “I feel like they might see it as a very negative thing right now, but I’m defending their Constitution, too.”

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