‘How Would Jesus Treat Jessica:’ One Girl’s Fight Against Christian America

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The Cloisters. NY, NY.

BY: SABRINA CASERTA

CRANSTON, R.I. __Small signs dot the lawns of Cranston homes, beginning with, “Our Heavenly Father, grant us each day the desire to do our best….” They’re the same words that hung in the auditorium of Cranston High School West just years before. Now, on her way home from the University of Vermont, 20-year-old Jessica Ahlquist notices the prayer and is reminded of the year-long, grueling lawsuit she fought with her high school when she was only 16.“Maybe if I hadn’t had this experience, I would’ve liked to live here, but having everything happen to me, it ruined the area,” Ahlquist said.

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Stained Glass Window: The Cloisters, NY, NY.

Towards the end of her freshman year of high school, the Cranston native first noticed the large banner hanging in the school’s auditorium that hosted the “School Prayer.” Having been raised Catholic, Ahlquist never identified with organized religion and was a self-proclaimed atheist from a young age.

“I was just kind of startled by it. I mean it was titled ‘School Prayer,’ it started with Our Father and ended with Amen, so I wasn’t completely unaware that it was illegal, even before the lawsuit. I was confused because at that point, I didn’t think my school would be blatantly breaking the law,” Ahlquist said. “I spent the summer doing research on it. It was something I thought about pretty regularly, because I was interested. I wanted to feel like I belonged in my school.”

The summer of 2010, when 15-year-old Ahlquist was entering her sophomore year, she read in the newspaper that another mother had commented on the presence of a Christian prayer banner. The mother, who was Jewish, had garnered support from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island who called for the prayer’s removal.

“I think Rhode Island, in some respects, has shown a very healthy respect for the separation of Church and state,” said Stephen Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU. “Once in awhile, it falters. The Ahlquist case is a good example of that.”

Cranston High School West’s School Committee, in response to the ACLU’s letter, formed a subcommittee which would meet to discuss the prayer’s place in the school.

“That was a problem with the prayer, it’s a public school. Not everyone there is Catholic, not everyone there refers to a ‘god,’” Ahlquist said. “Anyone who has ever taken an American history class knows that the people who settled this country were escaping religious persecution, especially Rhode Island. And I think people don’t value, because they don’t understand why it’s so significant, the consequences of not having this clear separation. You don’t want this government endorsement of something that’s supposed to be a personal belief and a personal decision, so I think that for a lot of people, as long as the government is endorsing their religion, they don’t realize the danger of it. The point is to protect people.”

Since the emergence of the United States, the First Amendment of the Constitution birthed a firewall between church and state in attempts to safeguard both the nation and religious entities from the corruption, overreach, and bloodshed which plagued Medieval Europe.

“We’ve seen various instances across two hundred years of Constitutional History where there has been interference between, or interaction between the government and the Church,” said June Speakman, a political science professor at Roger Williams University.

The overlap brokered between church and state has been showcased in our nation’s politics and public affairs. The words, “In God We Trust,” are printed on our dollar bills, the United States Congress begins their sessions with a morning prayer and national politicians regularly invoke religion—inviting God to bless America, while asking citizens to pray for victims of tragedy and disaster.

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Stained Glass Window. The Cloisters, NY,

“I think if you look in the history of America, you see in the very beginnings of our country- this land of the free, home of the brave- that religion played a very vital role in the founding of this country,” said Father Henry Zinno, a pastor the Mount Carmel Church in Bristol, R.I. “The ministers, who were the preachers at the time had a great deal of influence on the founding fathers of this country. And Church services were integrated into the very fabric of this nation.”

Today, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a vast amount of Americans – roughly seven in ten – continue to identify with some branch of Christianity.

Sixty-five percent of Americans claim religion is an essential component of their day-to-day lives, as compared 33 percent of Polish, 25 percent of Germans and 24 percent of Japanese, according to Gallup. This makes the U.S. one of the highest developed nations with an emphasis on organized religion.

Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in America, with roughly 44 percent of the state identifying as Roman Catholic, according to a study done in 2014 by the Public Religion Research Institute. The second-biggest religious tradition in Rhode Island, however, is no religion. 21 percent of Rhode Islanders surveyed described themselves as atheist or religiously unaffiliated.

Ahlquist, who was publicly religiously unaffiliated, was pleased that the issue of the prayer had been brought to the school’s attention and decided to attend the meeting, which at that time, only drew in roughly 20 other people.

Ahlquist, not planning on participating or commenting, believed the meeting would be an open and shut case where the ‘school prayer’ would be promptly removed. Instead, when she arrived, she was greeted by a sea of people strongly pushing for the prayer’s preservation, with many saying, ‘God will be mad if we take it down.’

“For me, it was really shocking. I just didn’t expect adults, these grown-ups, to completely miss the point of a legal issue. I really tried to redirect the conversation to the legality of it, not that I didn’t believe in God, because that really became the focus for a lot of people,” Ahlquist said. “It became this non religious community versus religious community thing. If there was one thing that was disappointing about the whole thing, it was that. Even though I was nonreligious, I was trying to represent people of other faiths too. I was trying to say that this isn’t fair to anybody.”

Ahlquist was equally surprised at how cavalierly the school committee, as well as the elected officials of the city of Cranston discussed the involvement of their own religious preferences in supporting the school prayer.

“It’s their job to make the community the best they can. It should be common knowledge that when in a government, political setting, we’re not talking about our personal opinions. We’re not talking about our personal beliefs, we’re talking about politics and law and these officials were saying, ‘I can’t leave my religion at the door. My religion is a part of who I am, my religion is a part of this community and my vote. Yes, I am going to vote based on my own religious preferences.’ And they were proud of it, the community liked that. I mean they got re-elected,” Ahlquist said. “This was obviously something that was a political move but it’s an illegal political move, it’s wrong, it’s not constitutional, it’s not ethical. I really thought it was ridiculously immature and inappropriate for elected officials to be saying, ‘No, I’m not going to leave my religion at the door. I’m going to involve religion in my voting.’”

Political scientists have been citing religion, as well as gender, family and socio-economic status as major factors that influence politicians legislating, as well as voting patterns amongst Americans.

“Politicians seem less reserved—certain politicians—Ted Cruz comes to mind, in expressing their religious views. But I would say we’ve become more secular, not more religious as we move into the 21st century,” Speakman said, “Religious influences public affairs mostly indirectly through the role it plays in citizen’s lives. Public opinion, of course, leads voters to support candidates with certain religious beliefs. I do think since the 1980s you’ve seen more pastors getting involved in politics and being free to express their political opinions to their flock.”

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Highway Sign. Rhode Island.

According to 2014 midterm election analysis by Pew Research, the frequency of religious service attendance is a strong indication of how people will vote in elections. The 2014 exit poll data revealed that regular Churchgoers were more likely to vote for a Republican candidate over a Democrat by a 58 percent to 40 percent margin.

Further research showed that avid Christians are less likely to support gay marriage, with only 24 percent of white evangelical Protestants, being the least. Similarly, roughly 53 percent of devout Christians who regularly attend services believe abortion ought to be illegal in all or most cases.

“As priests, or pastors or ministers or rabbis, we speak to issues of the day. Where the nation had evolved from this very involved experience with the Church and State to now more of a separation, but a willingness to listen and be guided by the truths of the Gospel, the truth of the presence of God and see how that affects our lives and then to inspire legislation and leadership that can lead our country in freedom and democracy and justice,” Father Zinno said. “The Church wants to help the State or the community to be a better place to live. A place of moral principle and virtuous habits and that’s how the Church is able to to do that, through its preaching and teaching and sanctifying.”

Christians continue to make up the majority of the United States Congress. As of 2014, 92 percent of Congress claimed to be practicing the faith, with 71 percent of the country also Christian. While nearly 23 percent of all Americans identified as religiously unaffiliated, there is is one member- or point two percent- of the body that claims no religious affiliation.

“It’s very important that people feel that their government represents them regardless of what their religious beliefs are. If you have a government that’s neutral on religion, that isn’t trying to promote a religion, then you won’t see these kinds of nasty types of disputes take place,” said Stephen Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU, one of the lawyers in charge of Ahlquist’s case. “I was certainly really proud to see how Jessica handled this, I don’t think a lot of adults could’ve handled it the way she did, but it is a very good example of why it’s so important, why this principle is so important, so people who see their government representing them, do in fact, get represented by them.”

After witnessing the vast support for the prayer, Ahlquist began to comment during the public sessions and pursue the issue further. She spent the majority of her sophomore year attending meetings- which grew larger and larger each time, as more people in the community began defending the prayer.

“A lot of the things people tried to say in response to what I was doing was, ‘Well, of course there can be religion in the government because, look, it’s in the Pledge of Allegiance and it’s on the money, and it’s the national motto.’ And I’m like, these things weren’t there until 40, 50 years ago,” Ahlquist said. “That’s also when the prayer at the school went up. What a coincidence. These are all things that happened in the 1950s, and it was a direct result of communism. I think it has had a cultural impact. Our generation, the whole time we’ve been alive in this country, that’s how it’s been the way it is, so a lot of people don’t question that. They just think that’s the way I’ve always been.”

Post-war America brought droves of people to churches in record numbers, skyrocketing the numbers of traditional denominations, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Lutherans and Presbyterians. The growth of Churches swelled and the Bible became the number one sold book in the United States.

This is attributed to the looming Cold War threat—pitting Christian America against the Soviet Union’s “godless communism.” The American perception of the Soviet Union in the 1950s found a base in atheism, totalitarianism, and communism. Communist thinkers from Marx to Lenin to Trotsky to Stalin advocated an abandonment of a religion, stating they felt it to be superstitious and unproductive.

Throughout the post-war years of the Second Red Scare, “godless communism,” along with similar variations, became a cautionary tale to any religiously reluctant American. As the communist threat to the American way of life grew, so did the idea that Christianity was inextricably linked with the country’s self-image.

It was during these years that our national motto was established, though the phrase “In God We Trust” had appeared earlier in the nation’s history, including on coins minted in the 19th century, the phrase officially becomes the national motto during the Cold War. The Pledge of Allegiance also included “Under God,” and public schools across the nation began embracing school prayers, Cranston High School West being one of them.

The amount of support in favor of the prayer put pressure on the city of Cranston, as well as the school committee, to leave it up. The ACLU, noticing the commotion, offered to represent Ahlquist in court, if she decided to pursue it further.

“At this point, I was really hopeful that I could convince them to take it down. I did public comment for like five meetings, I was really doing everything I could to prevent it from going to court,” Ahlquist said. “I should’ve been a little more scared. I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

After the school committee voted to keep the prayer up, Ahlquist, with the help of her father, decided to file a lawsuit in early 2011 against the town of Cranston and Cranston High School West calling the legality of a School Prayer in a public high-school into question. Though Ahlquist was hesitant to jump into a legal battle, she felt it necessary.

“I was a really shy, quiet kid, I didn’t want this attention but it was something I felt so passionate about, I felt I couldn’t accept this defeat because I believe in this now, I know this is wrong,” Ahlquist said.

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Jessica Ahlquist.

After a year-long court case, the judge ruled in favor of Ahlquist in April of 2012, her junior year of high-school, and called for the removal of the prayer. Cranston High School West covered the prayer in tarp for the time being and decided against appealing the decision. Though the legal battle was over, Ahlquist’s problems seemed to only have begun.

“I guess I should have known that winning wouldn’t be the end, that’s actually when things started to get worse,” Ahlquist said.

People began threatening Ahlquist’s life, both online and in hand-written letters. She would often receive notes stating, ‘I know where you live and I know the license plates of your family’s cars.’ Ahlquist, who has three younger siblings, began to worry for her family’s safety as well as her own. After being followed home on the bus one day, the threats became so severe and so chronic that the city had enlisted police officers to escort Ahlquist to and from each of her classes. They also had constant police patrol around their block every hour to ensure that her and her family were kept safe.

Some of the insults directed towards Ahlquist on Twitter or Facebook read, ‘Hail Mary, Full of Grace @JessicaAhlquist is gonna get punched in the face,’ ‘We can make so many jokes about this dumb bitch, but who cares #thatbitchisgointohell and Satan is gonna to rape her,’ ‘Yeah, well I want the immediate removal of all atheists from the school, how about that?,’ ‘Hmm Jess is in my bio class, she’s gonna get some shit thrown at her,’ and ‘Nail her to a cross.’

According to research by DoSomething.org, 81 percent of young people think bullying online is easier to get away with than bullying in person, while well over 90 percent of youths have witnessed cyberbullying, and ignored it.

“There was a ton of cyberbullying. That’s what people did to stay anonymous. A lot of people didn’t even bother to stay anonymous. A lot of people in the community, definitely my peers in school were attacking me, viciously on social media,” Ahlquist said. “I was really startled by how many adults were coming out of the wood-work and saying really, really horrendous things, threatening my family. Just some of the insults you would hear were unnerving. It’s unacceptable and completely ridiculous that on one note, people are saying that I’m evil and immoral while also threatening me. I mean, the irony there is precious.”

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Radicalized Christianity in America has spilled into the public sphere, instances range from the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting in November of 2015, to the Kentucky county-clerk, Kim Davis, refusing a same-sex marriage license to a couple. Her singular claim being that she was acting “under God’s authority.”

With the notion that the United States is still a ‘Christian-nation’, the German non-profit Bertelsmann Stiftung looked at Americans response to non-religious or atheists. Their 2013 survey found 50 percent of Americans still consider atheism to be threatening.

In 2012, the Pew Research Center found that the number of millennials reporting doubts about the existence of God has doubled in five years—being roughly 31 percent at the time the survey was published.

This means more people in the United States now identify as nonreligious than any time in the past 30 years, and those numbers are steadily increasing, especially amongst the youth.

Ahlquist’s story in Rhode Island is echoed by other cases like that of Damon Fowler in Louisiana, who got his school to cancel their plans for a prayer at his graduation ceremony, only to be kicked out of his house by his parents- and Gage Pulliam of Oklahoma, who was greeted with threats, bullying and exclusion when he anonymously sent a picture of the 10 Commandments hanging in his public high-school’s biology classroom to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. After being found out, he feared for his safety, as well as his family’s due to the high-level of hate he received.

For Ahlquist, the insults weren’t confined to the Internet, or school walls- from students yelling insults across the halls while wearing a T-shirt with the prayer printed on it, to teachers telling her that she asked for it- but, elected officials commenting on public radio or in front of large crowds.

Ahlquist was forced to sit through a question and answer session during the high-school’s “Diversity Week,” featuring the Mayor of Cranston, Allan Fung, who, when asked about the prayer, said that he saw no problem with it, that he didn’t understand why I wanted it taken down, and should be kept up, Ahlquist recounted. She was then greeted by a room chock-full of cheering students and teachers.

Her state representative, Peter Palumbo, publicly called Ahlquist “an evil little thing,” and referred to her as a “pawn-star,” insinuating she was nothing more than a pawn for the ACLU and the atheist agenda.

“I was 16 at the time, so this was adults, my representative, attacking a 16 year old high school girl. I definitely saw the worst from humanity,” Ahlquist said. “At this point it wasn’t just about the legality or the religion anymore, it was about, is it right to attack a 16 year old girl?”

Her supporters began printing their own T-shirts, saying “Evil Little Thing,” to turn Palumbo’s comments into a joke. They also carried signs asking: “How would Jesus treat Jessica?”

“So it was a lot of anxiety, a lot of negative attention that really took away from my education, that took away from my overall childhood. But for me, it was something worth doing and it wasn’t just negative,” Ahlquist said. “It was also people coming out to tell me that they supported me. Not just in the community, but on a national level. Even on an international level. I started to get invited to speak at different events which was a really rewarding experience for me. I got to go all over the country and meet different types of people. Meet people who believed that I did the right thing. That was really great to hear. So there were these extreme negatives as well as these extreme positives.”

Though Ahlquist was garnering support outside of her community, the stress of attending a school where everyone seemingly hated her caused her to become depressed. That, combined with the amount of speeches she was traveling for, caused her to opt out of Cranston High School West and chose to be home-schooled by her mother instead. She spent the end of her junior year, and the remainder of her senior year at home, chipping away at her high-school diploma. She did not attend graduation or prom in the city she had grown up in.

‘At that point, I felt like so many people in my school wished I was dead. I mean I didn’t want to be around that so honestly I moved on from it and was happy that I was traveling and meeting people who agreed with what I did. That meant more to me than prom,” Ahlquist said.

Today, Ahlquist’s siblings attend Cranston High School West without issue. Her siblings, all much younger when this issue came to fruition, weren’t really involved. Her parents, each supportive in their own way, were also going through a divorce during the time of the case, which added to Ahlquist’s stress.

“There were definitely times I felt like I was really alone,” Ahlquist said. “But, I don’t regret it at all. I’m happy I did it. I’m living with the good and bad results of it and I think that if I hadn’t done it, that’s what I would regret. At the end of the day, the majority doesn’t have the right to take away my rights. Who cares about what people think? Is the law on your side? Do you feel passionately about it? Then fight.”

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Author: sabrinacaserta

Sabrina Caserta, born and bred in Bronx, New York, is a freelance reporter whose work has appeared in the New York Daily News and Street Sense- a homeless-run street paper located in the District. As a member of Roger Williams University’s class of 2016, Sabrina studied Journalism and Political Science. This fueled her passion for social justice reporting, including issues of homelessness, institutionalized racism, poverty, education and the environment. She also served as the Project Director of the nation-brand initiative, The Re:Imagine Jamaica Project, and as a Resident Assistant for three years. As an avid reader, health enthusiast and travel addict, Sabrina enjoys yoga, cooking and writing in her spare time. She aspires to one day be an investigative journalist and travel the world. Twitter: @sabrinacaserta Email: sabcaserta AT gmail DOT com

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