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What Ever Happened to the Teen Atheist Who Successfully Battled to Ban Her School's Prayer Mural?


"I gave up friends and prom and even graduation day..."

FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2011 file photo, Cranston High School West student Jessica Ahlquist, 16, left, arrives at U.S. District Court, in Providence, R.I., with her attorney Lynette Labinger, right. Ahlquist, who is an atheist, won a federal court ruling to have school officials remove a prayer banner hanging in the school. The Cranston School Committee is set to hold a public hearing Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012 whether to appeal the ruling. Steven Senne/AP

Jessica Ahlquist, the teen atheist who successfully fought for the removal of a prayer mural that once hung in her former high school in Cranston, R.I., put herself at the center of a major church-state battle back in Jan. 2012.

At the time, she argued that the banner, which invoked both God and prayer, was unconstitutional.

FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2011 file photo, Cranston High School West student Jessica Ahlquist arrives at U.S. District Court, in Providence, R.I., with her attorney Lynette Labinger, right. (Credit: Steven Senne/AP)

A judge inevitably agreed with Ahlquist, ruling in favor of the young atheist activist and forcing the banner's removal from a wall at Cranston High School West.

At the time, the 16-year-old was showered with praise from supporters in the atheist activist community -- and with scowls and even threats from those who opposed her efforts to remove the banner that was in the school for decades.

Eventually, the furor died down. So, where is Ahlquist now?

In an interview with Chris Stedman, a secular writer and activist known as the "Faitheist," the 18-year-old shared her experience going through the contentious battle and described what she's up to these days.

As you may recall, Ahlquist received cryptic threats as a result of her activism, as many in her community -- and around the nation and the world -- weighed in on the local debate. To summarize her life in the wake of the legal battle: it was chaotic.

"Comparing all of that to my life today, things have settled down quite a bit. I left high school shortly after I won the lawsuit in order to pursue my public speaking events, and I finished up my education with my mother," she told Stedman.

Ahlquist continued, "I have also recently moved to Vermont with my boyfriend and plan to continue my higher education there. Fortunately, much of the hate has died down and I am now left with lovely supporters."

The teen also went on to say that she's experienced a profound change in her attitude about life. Ahlquist said that the threats and intense scrutiny led to depression and negativity, but that she has largely been able to overcome much of that.

Still, she believes her life will likely never return to the way it was before the prayer banner battle -- but said that she's learned from the experience.

"On a personal level, this experience also really helped me learn to be more comfortable with who I am," Ahlquist continued. "I gave up friends and prom and even graduation day, but what I was able to do instead makes all of that seem pretty silly. I’m pleased with who I am today."

The prayer banner that was inevitably removed (Credit: Steven Senne/AP)

As for whether she sees continued activism in her future, Ahlquist answered affirmatively.

"I can't imagine a world where I am not advocating for what’s right," she said.

In Sept. 2013, a new replacement mural was dedicated and hung in the school; it contains no mentions of God or prayer. Along with the replacement sign is a second mural that provides the school’s creed, reported the Providence Journal.

The new messaging is a major departure from the original wording that Ahlquist decried, which included words like “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen” — terms that are known for being explicitly religious in nature.

Read Ahlquist's entire interview here.


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