There are not many 16-year-olds who take a police escort to school, but until recently, Jessica Ahlquist was one of them.
An atheist, Ahlquist sued the city of Cranston over a banner hanging in the auditorium of her high school, Cranston High School West. A longtime feature at the school, the banner is printed with the words “Our Heavenly Father.”
A federal judge ordered the banner removed in January. The school board in Cranston is expected to decide Thursday whether to go to the court of appeals over the ruling.
The ruling has also prompted an angry backlash from residents. Ahlquist has received death threats and has even been criticized by her own state representative, Peter Palumbo.
“What an evil little thing. Poor thing,” Palumbo told local talk radio station WPRO. “And it’s not her fault she’s being trained to be like that.”
Coach and recent Cranston High West graduate Janine Hansen says the words that bothered Ahlquist are no big deal. The prayer on the banner opens with “Our Heavenly Father,” urges students to work hard, be good people and achieve in sports, and ends with “Amen.”
“It’s stupid. You have your opinions, cool, keep it to yourself. It’s four words in the whole prayer. Four words. Like, stupid.”
The school board had the option of removing those four words, but decided not to. Many Cranston residents protested the idea of changing what has been part of the high school since the early 60s.
Ahlquist says the prayer made her feel alienated.
“I was really taken aback and a little bit hurt by it because it is entitled ‘school prayer,’” Ahlquist says. “It really kind of makes you feel like you don’t belong if you don’t believe in a heavenly father.”
Ahlquist says she’s most troubled by Internet threats and what her classmates have been posting online.
“This one really upset me,” Ahlquist reads from a laptop: “‘This girl must be so unloved to want to get negative attention from everyone. Yeah, everyone talks about you ’cause you’re psycho.’”
The strong support for the prayer banner may seem surprising in a state founded upon the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state. But Rhode Island also has the highest percentage of Catholics in the nation. And in Cranston, the state’s third largest city, everyone seems to be talking about the banner controversy.
A local florist has been selling T-shirts with a reproduction of the school prayer. As she buys two for her children, parent Marlene Palumbo says she thinks the prayer should stay.
“It’s freedom of speech. I really don’t feel as if there’s a concern with it. It’s not religious in any way at all,” Palumbo says. “I mean, the banner has been up there since my mother went there. My mother went to Cranston West.”
Parent Nicole Pillozi agrees. But she questions the risk of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees if Cranston loses the appeal.
“I don’t think it’s worth the money. Not when the city’s in trouble and people are in trouble and the taxes just keep going up — and its crazy,” Pillozi says. “However, it’s a staple of the school.”
That’s exactly the dilemma the Cranston school board will face as it votes on whether to appeal the judge’s order that the banner be removed.