A federal judge has ruled in favor of a teenage atheist whose fight for the removal of a prayer mural in her public high school in Cranston, Rhode Island, has attracted national attention.
Jessica Ahlquist, 16, who was represented by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, was elated on Wednesday when her lawsuit against Crayton city and officials at Cranston High School West came to a close. In the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux said that the school must remove the banner immediately. Additionally, he decided that legal fees should be provided to the plaintiff.
Ahlquist’s main argument in the case has been that a prayer mural present in her school’s auditorium is offensive to non-Christians. Additionally, she claims that it has made her feel ostracized and, thus, she has petitioned fervently for its removal.
Here’s a news report from April 2011, during which Ahlquist discusses her opposition to the mural:
The banner, she contends, promotes religion. But city officials have argued that the mural plays an important role in the school’s history and that it is, in fact, an artifact worthy of being displayed.
Officials maintain that the prayer serves no religious purpose and that it merely encourages students to work hard academically. It does, as the Associated Press notes, begin with “Our Heavenly Father” and end with “Amen” — elements obviously associated with religious prayer.
In his decision Lagueux said, “The purpose of the prayer banner was clearly religious in nature” and he also said, “No amount of debate can make the school Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.” He went on to state that the presence of the prayer was essentially a governmental endorsement of religion, reiterating his believe that, “The Government must not appear to take sides on issues of religious beliefs.”
Watch Ahlquist address the banner in a talk to the Secular Student Alliance in 2011:
Cranston School Committeeman Frank Lombardi, who had voted in support of the banner and who believed it truly was more secular in nature, voiced his disappointment with the ruling. “I really believe the purpose of this banner was more traditional in nature, more secular in nature, it wasn’t to promote any sort of religion or anything like that,” he said in an interview with the Matt Allen Show (listen here).
“I am upset, disappointed and not to say, outraged,” said David Bradley, who penned the prayer when he was in seventh grade in 1963. “It’s a shame that some judge with an appointment out of a Cracker Jack box can make a ruling like that.”
Ahlquist, though, couldn’t have been happier. She took to her Twitter account to voice her excitement over the decision:
City officials have 10 days to respond to the decision. They have not yet decided if they will appeal.