Banner Battle, Final Chapter: R.I. School Erects Secular Principles

It seems that a Rhode Island high school has learned quite a bit from Jessica Ahlquist and her lawsuit against a prayer banner.

The town of Cranston, R.I., recently showed just how effectually a church/state issue can be resolved. The local high school’s controversial and religiously-themed banner was replaced by a new, secular and inspirational banner.

The high school was the site of controversy in 2011 after Jessica Ahlquist, then a 16-year old student at Cranston High School West, complained about the school’s religiously themed banner. The banner, which took the form of a prayer and contained the words “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen,” was a gift from the Class of 1963 and had hung in the high school’s auditorium for 50 years.

Ahlquist, an atheist and activist, enlisted the help of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and sued the school, claiming the banner was unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Ronald R Lageueux agreed and ordered that the banner be removed. The school complied with the decision instead of spending an estimated $500,000 in legal fees to appeal to a higher court.

After filling the lawsuit, Ahlquist received a none-too-Christian torrent of hate mail and physical threats from defenders of the banner. The morally and grammatically repugnant responses on social media included, “I hope there's lots of banners in hell when your (sic) rotting in there,” “Your (sic) a puke and a disgrace to the human race” and numerous rape threats.

Others called for people to “jump” Ahlquist and “punch her in the face,” with one person going so far as threatening the life of Jessica, her sister and her father. (Perhaps the “love thy neighbor” bit was left out of Cranston’s Bibles?) The threats were so intense that Ahlquist had to finish her final year of high school from home.

Americans United recognized Ahlquist’s efforts by awarding her the Youth Activist Award last year.

The new banner, donated to the school by the same Class of 1963, in order to celebrate their 50-year reunion, contained no theological statements. Instead, the banner uses the school’s mascot – a falcon – as an acronym. It reads:

  • Foster an atmosphere of good will and respect
  • Affirm our efforts to conduct ourselves with honor
  • Learn from our achievements and mistakes
  • Choose wisely the paths taken and friends made
  • Overcome prejudice and embrace diversity
  • Nurture ourselves, families, friends and communities
  • Strive for excellence in all our future endeavors

An accompanying “School Creed” contains similar sentiments – all secular.

With a message like this, it seems the school learned quite a bit from Jessica and her lawsuit. Hopefully those who flocked to social media to condemn Jessica to hell will pay attention to the school’s new banner and adopt its principles.

Apparently, the community is relieved to put the issue behind them and move on. “The community is healed,” said member of the Class of 1963 Janice Bertino. “There is no more controversy.”

This is what those of us who advocate for church-state separation strive for in a resolution of these issues. Here the offending parties realize their mistake and sufficiently correct it, thus strengthening the community in the process.  Meanwhile, the offended party is able to see her efforts come to a satisfying and concrete conclusion.

It seems that everyone was completely satisfied by this resolution -- well, almost everyone. The new secular banner was unveiled at an invitation-only reception, but one notable player in this controversy did not receive an invite: Jessica Ahlquist. Perhaps the school needs a more intensive review of its new FALCONS motto.