U.S.
3:37 pm
Tue February 7, 2012

R.I. Student Draws Ire Over School Prayer Challenge

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, R.I., over a banner hanging in the auditorium of her high school, Cranston High School West. Printed on the banner, a longtime feature at the school, is a prayer to "Our Heavenly Father."

In January, a federal judge ordered the banner removed. The school board is expected to decide Thursday whether to appeal.

The ruling has 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," he told local talk radio station WPRO. "And it's not her fault. She's being ... trained to be like that."

The prayer, which opens with "Our Heavenly Father," urges students to work hard, be good people and achieve in sports. It ends with "Amen."

"It's stupid," says cheerleading coach Janine Hansen, a recent graduate of the school. "You have your opinions — cool, keep them to yourself. It's four words in the whole prayer — four words. Like, stupid."

The school board had the option of removing the 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. For now, the school has covered the banner with plywood and a school flag.

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 does kind of make 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.'"

Ahlquist had a police officer escorting her to class for a time, but requested the detail be called off when she felt it was only adding to the public scrutiny.

Rhode Island was founded upon the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state. But the state 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."

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 it's 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 ruling.

Copyright 2012 Rhode Island Public Radio. To see more, visit .

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The school board in Cranston, Rhode Island, is expected to decide Thursday whether to go to the Court of Appeals over a school prayer. The city's high school has long featured a banner with the words: our heavenly father.

Well, last month, a federal judge ordered it removed and the ruling has prompted an angry backlash from residents. Elisabeth Harrison from Rhode Island Public Radio has our story.

ELISABETH HARRISON, BYLINE: There are not many 16 year olds with a police escort at school, but until recently, Jessica Ahlquist was one of them. She sued the city of Cranston over a prayer in her high school auditorium. She says, as an atheist, it made her feel alienated.

JESSICA AHLQUIST: Like, I was really taken aback a little bit, like, hurt by it because, you know, it's entitled, The School Prayer, and it really does kind of make you feel like you don't belong if you don't believe in a heavenly father.

HARRISON: Our heavenly father is how the prayer starts and it ends with amen. In between, it urges students to work hard, be good people and achieve in sports.

As she waits for cheerleaders to gather for a practice, coach and recent graduate Janine Hansen says she thinks the words that bothered Ahlquist are no big deal.

JANINE HANSEN: It's stupid. You have your opinions. Cool. Keep them to yourself. Four words in the whole prayer. It's four words. Like, stupid.

HARRISON: The school board had the option of removing those four words, but decided not to. That's because many Cranston residents protested the idea of changing what's been part of the high school since the early '60s.

Jessica Ahlquist has gotten death threats. She's also been criticized by her own state representative, Peter Palumbo, on local talk radio station WPRO.

REPRESENTATIVE PETER PALUMBO: What an evil little thing. The poor thing. And it's not her fault. She's being trained to be like that.

HARRISON: Ahlquist says she's most troubled by Internet threats and what her classmates have been posting.

AHLQUIST: This one really upset me. This girl must be so unloved to want to get negative attention from everyone. Yeah. Everyone talks about you because you're psycho.

HARRISON: The strong support for the prayer banner might seem surprising in the state founded on the principle of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. But Rhode Island is also the most Catholic state in the country, and in Cranston, the state's third largest city, everyone seems to be talking about the prayer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How are you? Hey, honey, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm good.

HARRISON: The 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.

MARLENE PALUMBO: It's freedom of speech. I really don't feel as if that there's a concern with it. It's not religious in any way at all and, I mean, the banner has been up there since my mother went there. My mother went to Cranston West.

HARRISON: Another parent, Nicole Pillozi, agrees, but she questions the risk of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees if Cranston loses the appeal.

NICOLE PILLOZI: 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 it's crazy. However, it's a staple of the school.

HARRISON: That's exactly the dilemma that the Cranston School Board will face as it votes on whether to appeal the judge's order that the prayer banner be removed.

For NPR News, I'm Elisabeth Harrison in Providence, Rhode Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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