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Atheist teen stands behind her position after school prayer banner taken down

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
January 30th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A prayer banner at Cranston High School West in Rhode Island, part of the school since 1963, has been covered after a teenage student there complained that it violated the separation of church and state. Student Jessica Ahlquist is standing her ground, since 2010, she's been receiving online threats and has been targeted by bullies for her convictions.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The school board at Cranston High School West is deciding its next move. Jessica Ahlquist had been urging school officials to remove the banner from the auditorium for some time now.

The 8-foot banner features a student-written prayer.

On Jan. 11, federal judge Ronald R. Lagueux ruled it was unconstitutional for the banner to hang at the public school. The fight to remove the banner has come with consequences for the teen. The 16-year-old Ahlquist says she plans on graduating from the school next year.

The prayer, covered by a tarp, has residents and school board members riled. They say they aren't ready to take the banner down without a fight.

The controversial ruling was a heated topic at a Jan. 25 budget meeting, and police even had to be called suppress the crowd. A meeting has been scheduled for Feb. 16 during which school officials will hear public comment on the issue. The board will then decide whether or not to challenge the judge's decision.

Ahlquist, an atheist who was raised as a Roman Catholic but has obviously rejected the faith, was not the first to take issue with the presence of the 49-year-old banner.

According to The New York Times, a family filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010, though Ahlquist eventually became the spokesperson for the plea and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

At least one religious leader says Ahlquist should be able to stand up for what she believes.

"...We are proud to stand with others in Cranston who desire that Jessica and every young person be encouraged to learn to talk about their differences in peace," Rev. Leigh McCaffrey told television reporters.

When the school committee addressed an initial complaint from the ACLU at meeting in August 2010, two religious leaders, a reverend and a rabbi, agreed the banner should be "altered or removed." In March of 2011, the committee met again to hear public comments on the issue. Twenty-six adults spoke at the meeting, 24 of whom were in favor of keeping banner.

The prayer reads as follows:

    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.

    Amen


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