Jessica Ahlquist, the 16-year-old girl who won a federal lawsuit against Cranston High School West to remove a prayer banner from the wall of the school’s auditorium, is big news. After January 11th, when the court sided with Ahlquist and demanded the banner’s immediate removal, the story exploded. Camera crews and atheist protestors turned up outside the school. Jessica blew up on Facebook and Twitter. Fox News spun the story one way; newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times spun it the other.
Cranston—at least in the eyes of the national news machine—descended into chaos. A headline on the front page of the New York Times read, “Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against Prayer.” The article described Cranston as “throbbing with raw emotion.” A few news bites have stuck: Jessica received hate mail and death threats, leading to a cyber-bullying lawsuit and accompaniment to school by bodyguards; when an organization in Wisconsin tried to send her a bouquet of red roses, three Cranston florists refused to make the delivery; State Representative Peter J. Palumbo called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular Rhode Island talk radio show.
In his 40-page court decision, Judge Ronald Lagueux wrote that the School Committee’s open meeting about the banner last March “at times resembled a religious revival.” Speakers talked about their commitment to Catholicism—about religion being a full-time, not part-time, job. One speaker at the meeting was quoted in the court report saying, “If you take the banner down, you are spitting in the face of Almighty God… If this banner is taken down… on Judgment Day, you will be judged because you stand before Almighty God.”
A city of 80,000 just south of Providence, Cranston is a very Catholic town in the nation’s most Catholic state. 63 percent of Rhode Island identifies as Catholic, making it one of only two states (the other being Utah) where a majority of residents belong to one organized religion. These statistics, particularly in light of the apocalyptic events of the school board meeting, have been used frequently to illustrate a theory that has become the crux of the Jessica Ahlquist story: whatever people’s notions are about the religiosity of New England, Rhode Island is the exception to the rule.
Jamie Paola, Sarah Collins, and Sia and Elizabeth Grammas want the banner to stay up. They attend Cranston West, where Jamie and Sia are seniors, Elizabeth is a junior, and Sarah is a sophomore. All four have lived in Cranston their whole lives. Jamie does Student Council and yearbook. Sia did band for two years. Most importantly, Sia and Elizabeth are Westernettes while Jamie and Sarah are Falconettes—or, as they call them, the ‘Ettes. The ‘Ettes are the school’s two flag twirling and kick line teams. At football games, they’re announced over the loudspeaker as “The Pride of Cranston West.” This spring, the ‘Ettes are going to Florida to perform at Disney World. Jamie, Sarah, Sia, and Elizabeth are proud to be ‘Ettes and they’re proud to go to West. “Sometimes,” Jamie said, “I guess I wish everybody had as much school spirit as some of us do.”
None of them had ever thought much about the banner before last year, when they heard rumors that a girl named Jessica Ahlquist, then a 10th grader, wanted to file a lawsuit. The banner was on the wall of the auditorium, which, according to the girls, was only used a couple times throughout the year, for a welcome back assembly and maybe a talent show or two. “To be honest,” said Sia, “I didn’t even know it was there.” Until last March, that is, when the Cranston School board decided in a 4-3 vote against the banner’s removal, and Jessica, backed by the ACLU, followed through with her lawsuit.
The Friday after the recent court decision, students tried to organize a protest. Hundreds of kids were in the hallways, en route to the auditorium which, following the court decision, had been chained shut. The administration threatened that any student caught in the hallway would be immediately suspended. At the end of the day, Elizabeth said, “It felt like we were leaving jail or something… There were teachers surrounding the entire building, and teachers at the end of every hallway.”
Apparently, the day after Ahlquist’s win, the principle sent out an email telling the faculty to forbid students from talking about her or anything related to the prayer banner. The school administration denied this report in the Providence Journal, but all four girls recalled teachers telling students to be quiet and “totally shutting them down.” For the girls, that was the most upsetting part. “It felt like she was entitled to her opinion and we weren’t entitled to ours,” Elizabeth said. “And if we can’t protest, or say what we think, people are going do it in other ways. They’re going to do it on Facebook or on Twitter, and say really ridiculous stuff.”
Jessica has been taking time off of school, apparently because of safety concerns. People at West say that she isn’t coming back. Sia and Jamie heard that she’s transferring to Lasalle, a fancy Catholic school. If the rumor is true, they don’t like it. As Christians, the girls felt personally attacked by Jessica. They felt especially threatened by one post on her website, in which Jessica wrote a dialogue between “Christians” and the “Government.” In Jessica’s rendering, “Christians” are cast as whiny siblings, who scream and cry when the “Government” refuses to let them eat another cookie. “NO! I WANT THE COOKIE!” the Christians say. When the Government asks if the Christians would be willing to split the cookie, the Christians refuse again: “NOOOO! I WANT THE WHOLE THING.”
All four girls were raised in the church. Jamie and Sarah are both Italian Catholics. Sia and Elizabeth are Greek Orthodox. All are from big families. “Family is everything,” Jamie said.
“That’s it. You always have family,” Elizabeth added. “That’s just how we were brought up.”
For all of them, family means tradition. Jamie talked about her seven-dish Christmas Eve dinner. Sarah talked about reunions every spring, when 60 relatives take over a restaurant or arcade. Sia and Elizabeth, since they can remember, have had a weekly schedule for their family dinners, which often exceed twenty people: Tuesday means pork; Thursday means chicken and macaroni; Saturday means steak. “This is how we are and this is how we’re going do it with our kids, too,” said Elizabeth.
They talk about how long the banner’s been there, how sad they’d be if it changed, how they want students in the future—their own kids, even—to go to the same Cranston West that they went to. It’s not, they say, about religion.
“It’s called a prayer banner,” Jamie said, “but it’s not religious… I don’t look at this and think of it as something I’d say at Church. I see it as a hope or a wish, something that makes you strive to do your best.”
“It says Our Heavenly Father in the beginning; it says Amen at the end,” Sia said, “But Our Heavenly Father can be anybody. Anybody you look up too. It doesn’t say God; it doesn’t say Buddha. It’s just motivation to work hard and look up to your teachers.”
Nonetheless, they all agree that the banner—or, rather, its proposed removal—united the Christian community. Elizabeth and Sia’s priest gave a sermon about it. People at school who never used to talk to each other started talking. “This showed how religion can bring us together,” Sia said, “Because we all had a common belief.”
At a Western Hills Middle School board meeting after the court decision, a group of students made speeches about why they opposed the banner’s removal. They talked about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, about how those documents—and the founding of our country—were rooted in religion. Elizabeth and the rest of her friends see it the same way. “People came here for religion,” she says, “It’s always going be in our lives. It’s on money, it’s in the pledge of allegiance. I guess I don’t see how one little thing is going to change that.”
Constitutionally speaking, the reasoning behind the court’s decision seems hard to dispute. The banner depicts the Cranston West school prayer, written in 1960 by a then seventh grader one year after the school’s founding. The prayer was recited in homeroom over the loudspeaker system every morning until 1962, when Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale ruled prayer in public schools unconstitutional. Only two years later, West’s first graduating class gave a gift to the school: the school prayer in mural form.
Bobby Bach, an ’87 graduate of Cranston West, is behind efforts to cut the prayer banner out of the auditorium’s concrete wall and display it at a nearby Catholic school. To raise money, he’s selling five-dollar prayer banner t-shirts at his business, Twigs Florist—not one of the three that refused to deliver to Ahlquist. Bobby still lives in Cranston because he feels like it’s the kind of place where people live their lives according to the banner’s message. “I think I have the benefit of age,” Bobby says, “I understand Jessica Ahlquist’s point, I really do, but I come from a different generation than she does. A friend of mine from high school is Jewish, and he said to me, you know, if I went home at that age and said something to my father about the school prayer my father would have slapped me in the face and said ignore it, it has nothing to do with it, if you don’t like it then look the other way. I hate it to say it, but the kids run the parents now. It’s a different world.”
GRACE DUNHAM B’14 will be judged.