If there was an overriding theme that came out of the Tuesday morning presentations at York High School by Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist, it was that standing up for one's constitutional rights can come at a cost.
That was certainly the case for Ahlquist, 17, who told York's government students she was harassed and threatened by hundreds of people after she forced her high school through a federal court case to remove a prayer from the wall of the auditorium.
She was brought to York by the Citizen Advocacy Center in honor of Constitution Week. While she has been on national news programs and spoken in front of lawyers, judges and her school committee, this was her first time speaking to high school students. Flanked by attorney Maryam Judar of the CAC, Ahlquist told students that speaking to students was much harder.
"I'm afraid of high school," she said, adding her experience at Cranston West High School was a "nightmare for a long time."
She told students how, as a freshman, she knew the prayer was illegal.
"I knew I had the right to go to a public high school and not have any religion endorsed by my school," said Ahlquist, an atheist.
She attended school committee meetings her sophomore year. She researched precedent-setting court cases and expected it would be a relatively simple matter to get it taken down.
"I was hoping people would say, "Yeah, we're attorneys and politicians. We know the law and we know that this is illegal and we're going to take it down.' That's not what happened at all."
She said she pursued the process to protect the rights of all students.
"I was not just thinking about myself, I was thinking about my friends who believe in different gods—gods who are not necessarily referred to as 'Heavenly Father.'"
In the first school committee meeting, she proclaimed she is an atheist.
"They were really upset by that," she said, adding her community was mostly Catholic. "Some people called me a witch, they called me a Nazi, they said I was satan. I didn't expect the adults in my community who are supposed to know the law and who are supposed to enforce the law to treat me this way.
"I was scared after that night, but I continued to speak at these meetings, and at each one the crowd grew bigger and bigger."
She said her "worst nightmare" was that she would have to file a lawsuit. After the school committee voted 4-3 to keep the prayer, that's what she did, with the support of the ACLU. That's when the nightmare really began, she said.
"I came into my homeroom (one) morning, and during the Pledge of Allegiance, everybody in my homeroom turned and screamed 'under God' to me," she said. She said even the mayor of Cranston supported keeping the prayer up.
She eventually won the suit last January.
"I was really excited. I thought it was finally over. I thought that after almost two years of doing all this I could go back to having a normal life," she said.
But then people turned to Twitter and Facebook to harass her, she said.
"They threatened my life, said they hoped that I burn in hell and get raped and stabbed, they threatened my family, posted my home address online and all these different things that were really horrific," she said, adding police investigated the threats and had to escort her to her classes.
Ahlquist showed York students a video of one of the meetings (attached to this story) in which the school committee was trying to determine whether it should appeal the judge's ruling. The video shows a highly irate woman defending the prayer.
"That really demonstrates how crazy and emotional and off-topic it got," she said after showing the video. "That is a very good example of exactly what it was like."
Once her case gained national attention, she found support. Some 15,000 people supported her cause on Facebook, she said.
The prayer eventually was cut out of the wall.
"I don't go to that school anymore," she said. "I have a private tutor and do a lot of speaking around the country."
Throughout Ahlquist's talk, Judar interjected details about constitutional aspects of the case.
"Jessica has said time and time again that she supports the rights of individuals to speak out," Judar said. "Government doesn't get the right to tell us what to think."
Hands went up in the auditorium as students were eager to ask questions of Ahlquist.
"Why did it bother you so much? Couldn't you just look away?" one student asked.
"Because it's illegal," Ahlquist said. "Because it's my right and I feel strongly about my rights and I feel other people should too. … I don't know why we have the rights we have if we're not willing to fight for them. There are people in other countries that would literally die to have the rights that we do."
Another student asked if it was only Catholics who harassed her. She said that didn't seem like something conservative Christians would do.
"In my area, it is mostly Roman Catholic," Ahlquist said. "They were just really emotional about it. I know that they don't speak for everyone."
Students asked if it was an option to remove parts of the prayer, what it was like being called "an evil little thing" by a state legislator and if it was worth it destroying her high school experience.
"It wasn't destroyed," Ahlquist said. "I don't regret it at all. I chose to do something that I was passionate about. It was different, and it was negative sometimes, but it was worth it to me."
Another asked how she could keep this up when her family was in danger.
Backing down would have sent the wrong message, she said.
"They don't have the legal right to threaten my life. The police investigated them, went to their homes. They were in a lot of trouble. I'm not going to back down," she said.
Most of the students darted out of the auditorium after the presentation to get to their next class. Several said they did not want to comment, another said she was "kind of middle of the road" on the issue.
Student Steve Berg did stop and give his thoughts.
"She must really, really believe in this because I don't think it's worth being threatened and having a chance that your family could get harmed over looking at a (prayer)," he said.
When asked if he was inspired by Ahlquist's experiences, he said, "Not inspired. Not even a little bit. But I respect that she stood up for what she believes in and went the full way. I disagree that she should have gone that far for something that little."
York Research and Social Sciences Division Chairman Charles Ovando said the discussion was pretty much what he expected.
"Class discussion will get more into what the constitutional arguments were on her side and the other side," he said.
Her discussion leaned more toward her being threatened, which is a good message for students to hear, he said.
"When you talk about exercising your constitutional rights, that sometimes comes at a cost. It's not just a joy ride to speak up."