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York Government Students Learn About a First Amendment Battle From One of Their Own

Jessica Ahlquist, 17, forced her Rhode Island school in federal court to remove a prayer from the school's auditorium. "I'm afraid of high school," she told York students Tuesday.

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."

The Holy Qur'an September 20, 2012 at 09:33 PM
I am an Islamic man in Elmhurst and I would love to see a prayer from The Holy Qur'an up in the school. I have a feeling Middleschoolnarc would not be ok with this.
Middleschoolnarc September 20, 2012 at 09:47 PM
My dear friend that is the difference between Christianity and Islam. I would not attack you for putting it next to my prayer. I will not use violence against those that mock Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ said it well in John 8:31 "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. The difference between a country that is built in Judeo-Christian value vs other. I would love to put my Bible next to your Qur'an. One more thing My Lord and Savior sacrified himself for my salvation, no the other way around. May the Lord Jesus Christ come in your dreams and show you his Grace. God Bless my friend.
bill trudeau September 21, 2012 at 12:27 AM
I have to wholeheartedly agree. This format could be a fantastic way to share ideas and to give an honest explanation of ones personal beliefs. Constructive conversation with varying viewpoints is the way to greater knowledge and understanding of cultures we're not familiar with. People have absolutely no problem identifying themselves as a Cubs or Sox fan, but when it comes to religion and politics the defenses go up. We can't get past our own prejudices and inability to even consider that maybe our viewpoint is skewed. Time to come out of our bubble of a world and listen to others. That's how ignorance and hatred go away. ...or, we can use made-up names and insult each other.
Lisa September 21, 2012 at 12:29 AM
For the record, Jessica did agree that taking out the "our heavenly father" snd " amen" would suffice. They weren't having it. They would not compromise. I applaud her for seeing this through. It protects everyone from being overshadowed by one religious belief.
Middleschoolnarc September 21, 2012 at 12:39 AM
Mary, may the Lord forgive you!
Middleschoolnarc September 21, 2012 at 01:00 AM
Mary, Gayle, Maegan, and others that are angry at my comments, I am sorry that I cannot use proper spelling or grammar. I was born in another country, so i did not have the priviledge to attend the fine school that this country offers. I am doing my best to express my first amendment right. However I do believe that the message that I am sending is clear and eaqsy to understand, otherwise you would not be responding in such a demeaning way. (Hope I spelled that right). Again I do not understand why this world is so afraid of true Christianity. Christ stated well "and you will be hated by all for my name's sake". Mary ? what a special name. To insult Christianity is not dangerous. There is only one sin that dangerous and is not pardoned by God. Rejecting the Holy Spirit. Simply put rejecting the truth. We shall all end our time in this world, you see we were all born with a fatal disease, (sin). And then is judgment, are you ready? God Bless
Middleschoolnarc September 21, 2012 at 01:08 AM
Tony great great comment. My apology if I misunderstood you, I am not perfect. However you better watch, agreeing with me will get you attacked. God Bless
Randy Böcker September 21, 2012 at 01:16 AM
Tony you still miss the point. This was a discussion about government sponsored prayer which is against the law. You've made it personal now so I will leave this discussion. But your view of non-believers is definitely out of wack with reality. And you don't/won't/can't understand why anyone wouldn't believe in an invisible sky god that communicates through flaming shrubbery. Because that's perfectly reasonable.
Randy Böcker September 21, 2012 at 01:20 AM
Please don't continue to use the Bible to prove your points. Enlightened readers will disregard this out of hand. It's like referring to the Lord of the Rings to prove the existence of Hobbits. You take your faith seriously and while I don't agree with it I can respect that. But to non-believers the Bible is a work of fiction and it won't be taken seriously in any debate except to point out its many contradictions.
Alex Bliss September 21, 2012 at 01:35 AM
Middleschoolnarc, as a sophomore at york, I wish you could have listened to her words and realized that they changed everyone who listened. Her message was NOT to favor one religion over another. Her message was to remind us that if we don't like something, then we have by all means, a freedom to peacefully do it. However, I am commenting on something else. There is a problem with our government, There is a problem that is just as serious as our 15 trillion dollar debt, the millions that are out of work, and the situations in the middle east. This problem is very simple to recognize. This problem is that TOO MANY OF OUR POLITICANS CARE MORE ABOUT THEIR JOBS THAN DOING THE RIGHT THING!!!!!! The members of the Board that voted to keep it up probably voted so they could keep their jobs! Thank you for reading and AGREE WITH ME THAT POLITICANS NEED TO DO THE RIGHT THING! Thank you for being a citizen of the United States of America, where people can believe as they so wish.
Darlene Heslop September 21, 2012 at 02:31 AM
mr. santini..., :)... .
Middleschoolnarc September 21, 2012 at 02:44 AM
Alex, You are assuming I did not hear her words. She did not change everyone that listened. Sorry it is not the politicians, it is us that put them in a place of power. Most just listen to lip service and vote because he or she is a good speaker. Do people spend time doing homework on these individuals, or is it because we take liberty for granted and so we believe it will always be there? Well did you do your homework on Jessica or just listened and believed. Imagine if we all started changing thing because we did not like them? PLEASE STOP SCREAMING, thank you.
ChiTownExpress September 21, 2012 at 03:58 AM
Santini, why criticize Ms. Chadra for doing her job? If you don't like the little venture and see it as a joke, simply go away. You are like the unwanted house guest that comes in, eats the free food, drinks the beer, leaves a giant dump in the bathroom, and then proceeds to bitch and moan about the quality of the food.
Alex Bliss September 21, 2012 at 11:50 AM
I am assuming you did not hear her words. And we vote for politicians that are willing to make the right decisions even though they're often the hard ones. These politicians who voted to keep the prayer made the easy decision because that's what kept them in office! If you had studied up on this case, you would have seen a video after the first court ruling, where there was a meeting urging their representatives to appeal! And 2 reps agreed with that, because the lady in the meeting says you will not be in office if you don't appeal! This goes for the initial 4-3 decision by the board to keep it to!!! This is a problem, and you failed o recognize it. Too bad you weren't really there. I was. And before you tell me to stop screaming, stop being a hypocrite.
Mike Worrell September 21, 2012 at 01:14 PM
Mary, I'm very sorry to hear that. No one should be bullied for what they believe, even in cases where it's abhorrent to the majority. I sense from your comment that you feel that the attempted infringement on my daughter's Constitutionally protected free speech was a "just dessert" of sorts. Since neither she nor I have (to my knowledge) ever harassed an atheist, I would disagree.
Robert E September 21, 2012 at 04:07 PM
And may Mickey Mouse forgive you too.
Robert E September 21, 2012 at 04:16 PM
First you will notice it talks about a generic deity does not even use the word God. You will also notice nowhare is your Christ ever mentioned anywhere even to day the money does not say "In Christ we trust" the plege does not say "One nation under Jesus" this is not nor was it ever a Christian nation.
Robert E September 21, 2012 at 04:21 PM
The problem I have with the Christians is not the religion but the fact that they want everyone to be Christian. They for the most part don't seem to understand that not everybody is a Christian. I for once would like to have a discussion with them on a subject like this with out having to bring up the bible. They can't seem to figure out that saying God said so in the Bible does not convince me. You don't see other Religions coming here and saying to the Christians it has to be this way because Buda says so. Lord Shiva said it should be this way but they always have to tell you what Christ wants. The thing I have found is many Christians have very little knowledge of their own bible they only know what their priest/minister tells them but few read the whole thing for themselves. I just get tired of being told I need to follow Jesus all the time.
MK September 23, 2012 at 03:39 AM
According to Frank Lambert, Professor of History at Purdue University Regarding the Treaty of Tripoli: "By their actions, the Founding Fathers made clear that their primary concern was religious freedom, not the advancement of a state religion. Individuals, not the government, would define religious faith and practice in the United States. Thus the Founders ensured that in no official sense would America be a Christian Republic. Ten years after the Constitutional Convention ended its work, the country assured the world that the United States was a secular state, and that its negotiations would adhere to the rule of law, not the dictates of the Christian faith. The assurances were contained in the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797 and were intended to allay the fears of the Muslim state by insisting that religion would not govern how the treaty was interpreted and enforced. John Adams and the Senate made clear that the pact was between two sovereign states, not between two religious powers." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Tripoli ...As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. My choice, my freedom, my LORD. The God I know is not just a very loving God, He IS Love! It can only be experienced by faith in an unseen, Almighty God. Faith, not science. Try talking to Him. He just might answer you!
Just me September 25, 2012 at 03:54 AM
It makes me sad: 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. This, from "good, God-fearing people".... how hypocritical and, again, sad. Live and let live. Keep it simple and live by the golden rule. Bottom line is that her school broke the law. Her religious beliefs, or lack thereof, (should) have nothing to do with the point- prayer in school is illegal.
Sue Polito September 25, 2012 at 07:48 AM
I am in Awe of the pure ignorance posted so generously here. Indoctrination at it's finest. 1.Evolution is faith based and has no business in schools outside of the theology departments. There isn't or has never been ANY scientific proof on this subject and by it's own definition is not science. 2.The Bible is accurate historical documentation of events (backed by archeology and other secular accounts) the fact is not that Jesus lived because He did, (most secular scholars are honest enough to even admit this) but it's who you say He is that matters. 3.The only reason Christians try to tell others about their faith is not to be pushy or arrogant (or at least they shouldn't be) but because the Bible which is the Word of God tells them to share the news of the gospel with unbelievers because Jesus died for the whole world not just a few in secret. Take it or leave it. 4.Civics IS appropriate for school however when civics is about religion it then becomes religion and is hypocritical to say that it is separate from the very thing to which it is referring. If the discussion is brought to the table without allowing the representation of the opposing subject, (in this case Christianity) then the "Civic Atheist" becomes the very thing he/she is fighting against! ( I can't even believe I had to point that out.) I will give this Girl and her ACLU credit for their passion over nothing, because when they die nothing matters and there was no point to any of it right? So why care?
Randy Böcker September 25, 2012 at 04:17 PM
You are the reason ignorance runs rampant in our society. Evolution is science, not faith, so says every respectable scientist in the world. We have enough evidence to suggest it is true. Unlike the bible, which is a book of stories, not history. How's this, Sue? There is no direct historic evidence that Jesus the man ever existed! The Roman's kept meticulous records. The census around the time of Jesus' supposed birth? No record. Uprising in Jerusalem that led to Jesus death? No record. And the fact that the Romans would even get involved in a Hebrew matter is unusual at best. Your "facts" are clouded by your faith. Civics has nothing to with faith, just are moral character doesn't require religion. I can't even continue I am so completely dumbfounded by your ignorant response.
Middleschoolnarc September 25, 2012 at 11:37 PM
Randy respectable scientist? Here are some well know scientist that believed in the Bible, Isaac Newton. Newton's study of the Bible and of the early Church Fathers were among his greatest passions. George Mendel,the "father of modern genetics". Werner Heisenberg, German theoretical physicist who made significant contributions to quantum mechanics, nuclear physics and quantum field theory. Richar Smalley. A Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. In his last years he renewed an interest in Christianity and supported Intelligent design. Stanley Jaki,Benedictine priest and Distinguished Professor of Physics at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, who won a Templeton Prize and advocated the idea modern science could only have arisen in a Christian society. Allan Sandage, An astronomer who did not really study Christianity until after age forty. He wrote the article A Scientist Reflects on Religious Belief and made discoveries concerning the Cigar Galaxy .
Middleschoolnarc September 25, 2012 at 11:39 PM
Now check this guy out, Francis Collins, He is the current director of the National Institutes of Health and former director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute. He has also written on religious matters in articles and in Faith and the Human Genome he states the importance to him of "the literal and historical Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, which is the cornerstone of what I believe." He wrote the book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Henry F. Schaefer,III. He wrote Science and Christianity: Conflict or Coherenceand is a signatory of A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. He was awarded the American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry. John Lennox, Mathematician and Pastoral adviser. His works include the mathematical The Theory of Infinite Soluble Groups and the religion-oriented God's Undertaker – Has Science buried God? He has also debated religion with your hero Richard Dawkins. And let me shock you, Albert Einstein. Although never coming to belief in a personal God, he recognized the impossibility of a non-created universe. The Encyclopedia Britannica says of him: "Firmly denying atheism, Einstein expressed a belief in "Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the harmony of what exists." This actually motivated his interest in science, as he once remarked to a young physicist: "I want to know how God created this world. I guess you will always be dumbfounded unless you come to true faith in Christ.
Randy Böcker September 26, 2012 at 12:15 AM
Any troll can do a Google search and come up with a handful of "scientists" that have faith. Especially from the 18th or 19th century. How about some of these names? Bill Nye. Brian Cox. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Stephen Hawking. This is really off topic but the vast majority of scientists are not Christian, accept evolution as a fact, and use observational science to inform their beliefs. For every 5 names you can find (that are still alive) I can throw 100 back at you. There is no room for debate with no common frame of reference. You are preaching and I refuse to participate further. Guess we'll all know for sure when we die.
MK September 26, 2012 at 12:30 AM
Sounds good to me. The conversation has to end somewhere. You've heard the truth and heard His Word and His Words. The rest is up to you. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive if you are defensive and reject our witness. It is true Love when you find the Truth. God has Mercy and Compassion that surpasses all understanding. He/Jesus knocks. Will you answer the door to discuss the truth one-on-one and not in a forum? I challenge you to face him behind a closed door. If you TRULY want to know the truth, do it! Godspeed!
Middleschoolnarc September 26, 2012 at 12:45 AM
Well it appears that something is convicting you on the inside. It is all about Faith. May God our Savior continue knocking at your door. Time is running out. God Bless
Robert E September 26, 2012 at 01:37 AM
Evolution is both fact and theory. Creationism is neither.
Robert E September 26, 2012 at 02:13 AM
This century will be called Darwin's century. He was one of the greatest men who ever touched this globe. He has explained more of the phenomena of life than all of the religious teachers. Write the name of Charles Darwin on the one hand and the name of every theologian who ever lived on the other, and from that name has come more light to the world than from all of those. His doctrine of evolution, his doctrine of the survival of the fittest, his doctrine of the origin of species, has removed in every thinking mind the last vestige of orthodox Christianity. He has not only stated, but he has demonstrated, that the inspired writer knew nothing of this world, nothing of the origin of man, nothing of geology, nothing of astronomy, nothing of nature; that the Bible is a book written by ignorance -- at the instigation of fear. Think of the men who replied to him. Only a few years ago there was no person too ignorant to successfully answer Charles Darwin; and the more ignorant he was the more cheerfully he undertook the task. He was held up to the ridicule, the scorn and contempt of the Christian world, and yet when he died, England was proud to put his dust with that of her noblest and her grandest. Charles Darwin conquered the intellectual world, and his doctrines are now accepted facts. -- Robert Green Ingersoll, "Orthodoxy" (1884)
MK September 26, 2012 at 02:53 AM
Sinful man foolishly glorifies the created, instead of The Creator.

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