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The Katzwer’s Out of the Bag: Separation of church and state: an overblown response

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Opinions


There are many things written in the Constitution that can be questioned and understood in multiple ways. For example, we have the right to free speech but not if that speech can cause harm to others; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared in 1919 that one cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theater.

Somewhat ambiguous is the section of the U.S. Constitution that decrees “a separation of church and state”; in fact, that phrase—“separation of church and state”—does not appear in the Constitution but comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote. The Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

This section of the Constitution seems to say plainly that Congress cannot prevent you from practicing your religion but it makes no statement about whether you can practice your religion in a public building. But, in 1947, all nine Supreme Court justices agreed that the United States should have separation of church and state so as to prevent religious coercion.

While this may seem cut and dry to us—we were all raised knowing the phrase “separation of church and state”—a 16-year-old girl is fighting for this principle.

Jessica Ahlquist, a junior at Cranston High School West in Rhode Island, lives in a heavily Roman Catholic city and is an atheist. Ahlquist has become the face of an ACLU lawsuit against the public high school to have a prayer banner removed from display in the gymnasium. Last month a judge ruled that the banner needed to be removed; the school has been holding meetings to decide whether or not they should comply with the order.

To be honest, when I first read about this case, I thought Ahlquist was making a big deal out of nothing. Who cares if the school has a prayer banner up? Yes, it is against the Constitution, but it is not as if the school makes the students recite it. Several former Cranston West students said they did not even remember the banner.

This is the natural thing to think when something does not affect you. But then I began to think about how I would feel if an overtly Christian prayer sign went up at my high school where I could see it every day. For a teenager, that can be intimidating and isolating. “It seemed like it was saying, every time I saw it, ‘You don’t belong here,’” Ahlquist said.

My newfound sympathy for Ahlquist was further heightened when I read about the town’s reaction to her suit. Rather than stopping to consider how they would feel if an overtly religious symbol from another religion were being displayed at the public high school, the town stopped at nothing to vilify Ahlquist, a young woman who had the courage to stand up for that which she believes.

Ahlquist has received death threats from classmates and adults—or people who think they are adults (adults do not do this). Three florists in her town have refused to deliver flowers to her. Ahlquist was forced to take time off from school to escape the vitriol. State Representative Peter G. Palumbo called Ahlquist “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show.

This behavior is ridiculous and shameful. These people think they are better than Ahlquist because they are religious but good people do not harass little girls and they do not allow their biases to overrun their reason.

I agree that the banner is fairly benign and inoffensive but the law is the law. The banner reads:
“Our Heavenly Father,
Grant us each day the desire to do our best,
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically,
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others,
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win,
Teach us the value of true friendship,
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.
Amen”

The banner has been hanging in the school since 1963, when a seventh-grade student wrote the prayer. A lot of people are arguing that the banner is a part of the school’s history and should remain because of that. So, leave it. If they would just cover up “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen,” it is no longer a prayer and would not offend anyone. Ahlquist and the ACLU are not objecting to the values espoused in the prayer but to the manner in which they are espoused.

The response from those in Ahlquist’s community has just been appalling and, at times, confusing. For example, this is a line taken directly from the New York Times article on the issue: “Many alumni this week said they did not remember the prayer from their high school days but felt an attachment to it nonetheless.” What? Why would you feel attached to something of which you learned mere days ago? That just does not make sense.

One Cranston West alumna, Brittany Lanni, told The New York Times that Ahlquist was “an idiot.” She continued, “If you don’t believe in that, take all the money out of your pocket, because every dollar bill says, ‘In God We Trust.’” Lanni is correct. And maybe it is time that changed as well. We have a separation of church and state in this country—our money should not mention God on it.

Despite all the negative feedback, however, Ahlquist remains strong. She intends to graduate from Cranston West next year and she refuses to back down on her lawsuit. When asked if she could empathize with the members of community who want the banner to remain, she responded, “I’ve never been asked this before. It’s almost like making a child get a shot even though they don’t want to. It’s for their own good. I feel like they might see it as a very negative thing right now, but I’m defending their Constitution too.”

I would like to thank Jessica Ahlquist for defending our Constitution and for not allowing the ignorance and cruelty of her community to weigh her down.