Student Challenges Separation of Church and State
A response to this NPR story:
16 year-old atheist, Jessica Ahlquist “sued the city of Cranston, R.I., over a banner hanging in the auditorium of her high school, Cranston High School West.” The banner is titled “School Prayer,” begins with “Our heavenly father,” and ends with “Amen”. The prayer “urges students to work hard, be good people and achieve in sports.” I fully support Ahlquist’s efforts.
Unfortunately, the majority of Ahlquist’s community is supportive of the banner and against her. She has received death threats on the Internet, students bully her in person and online, and a community member has printed the banner onto t-shirts and is selling them to support the banner. Because of these threats and intimidation policemen escorted Ahlquist to school for a while.
I’m surprised that no one has complained about the banner before. I have no problem with schools teaching and discussing religion in English and social studies courses but this banner is clearly endorsing the idea of religion and a belief in God. It clearly endorses the belief in God since it says “Our heavenly father,” and is attempting to speak for all members of the school. Schools cannot and should not endorse or encourage any religious or political ideology.
One great point the NPR article makes is that “Rhode Island was founded upon the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state.” For those who do not know the history behind Rhode Island, it became a haven for prosecuted religious minorities after its founding by theologian Roger Williams, a believer in religious freedom and separation of church and state.
On another note, NPR pointed out that Ahlquist’s state representative, Democrat Peter Palumbo, has criticized Ahlquist and her actions. Speaking to a local radio station he said, “What an evil little thing. Poor thing. And it’s not her fault. She’s being … trained to be like that.” I have a couple issues Palumbo’s opinions. First whether he is calling Ahlquist or her actions “an evil little thing,” I think it is very extreme and inappropriate for an elected official to label a 16 year-old individual or her actions as “evil.” Hitler and rapists are evil, not Ahlquist and her beliefs. Palumbo’s statement is quite offensive but even more so, ineffective and immature.
I also take offense to Palumbo’s belief that Ahlquist was “trained to be like that.” Palumbo believes Ahlquist was taught, trained, or indoctrinated, presumably by her parents, the media, or authors to be an atheist and to believe in the separation of church and state. Essentially, he is saying that 16 year-olds do not have the intellectual ability to form and understand their own independent values and beliefs (well actually no ones values and beliefs are “their own” or original. They are influenced and built on the beliefs of others). This method, attributing the actions and beliefs of teenagers you disagree with to the “fact” that they must have been brainwashed or indoctrinated, has been seen before. For example, Arizona state attorney Tom Horne believes that Tucson middle and high school students enrolled in Mexican-American ethnic studies courses have been propagandized and brainwashed (he used these words in different tenses) into believing they are oppressed and engaging in protest and civil disobedience to protect their courses.
I hope Ahlquist wins her battle, that students stop bullying her, and that more people can come to understand why this banner violates the separation of church and state.