The Author of The Cranston High School Prayer Outraged

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This week, Jessica Ahlquist and the ACLU won their court case against Cranston High School West in Rhode Island. The school was ordered to immediately remove a banner containing an official school prayer addressed to “Our Heavenly Father” and ending in “Amen”, which hung over the school gymnasium as an unambiguous endorsement of the Christian religion by the school, in clear and flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause for nearly 50 years. You can read the ruling for yourself.

The Westerly Sun tracked down the man behind the banner to tell the story of its origins and give his reaction to U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux’s ruling that it is unconstitutional.

David Bradley was a seventh-grade student at a brand new high school, Cranston High School West, in 1960. The school had no identity then, so student leaders like Bradley were tasked with determining the school colors, the mascot, and in Bradley’s case, the school prayer.

The banner using Bradley’s prayer was a gift from the class of 1963. Bradley responded to the ruling against the banner:

“I am absolutely incensed, disenfranchised and outraged,” Bradley said.

No, Mr. Bradley, you have not been disenfranchised, your religion has been disestablished as the de facto religion of the school. That’s the way it is supposed to be. State governments and the federal government in the United States of America are neither to establish any religion nor religion itself nor irreligiousness itself. All governments in the United States are to remain neutral, neither judging nor endorsing nor condemning either religiousness nor the rejection of religiousness. This does not disenfranchise religious individuals. Quite the contrary, this allows each person, religious or irreligious to follow his or her own conscience and feel fully enfranchised. When the government promulgates a religious viewpoint contrary to anyone’s own, this threatens to disenfranchise that person. When a school prescribes a prayer for all its students, that school gives a religious dictate to a student irrespective of her own conscience. This forces her to either be true to her conscience and risk feelings of alienation from her fellow students and citizens, or to violate her conscience under the social and political pressure coming from both the government itself and from the citizens whose behavior and attitudes are influenced by its example.

“It’s just one more example of secularism eroding the fabric of America.”

The fabric of America is secularism. Democracy, egalitarianism, civil rights, equal protection, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, tolerance, multiculturalism, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly—these are the special revolutionary ideals that made America (and other countries born of the Enlightenment) special and distinctive. Not one of these values is distinctively Christian. Not one is clearly advocated anywhere in the Bible. And using governmental means to train students to adopt your religious practices violates numerous of these distinctively Enlightenment-derived American values which, when we are at our best, separate us (and other secular Enlightenment influenced nations) from theocracies and other repressive regimes throughout history. Scrupulous activist watchdog secularism firms up the fabric of America; it does not unravel it. In short, American values are directly opposed to fundamentalist values, and not an outgrowth from them and fighting for secularism is fighting for the integrity and legitimacy of America.

His prayer, he noted, is based on civility, intelligence and common decency, and “these people [the prayer's opponents] don’t like these things.”

This is shamefully backwards. What the school sought to do, impose their religious beliefs and practices on others, is what was uncivil and a violation of American standards of common decency as far as I’ve ever known them. Religious as many of the people in this country may be, getting pushy with your religious beliefs and bullying others into accepting them through whatever leverage you can manage is constantly denounced with scorn in America. It goes against the very spirit of even the dominant American religious sensibility, which frequently stresses that religious expressions must be unforced in order to be genuine.

And it is unintelligent. It is unintelligent to use government means to train students in mass conformity and deference to a system of ancient, outdated, false-on-their-face traditional beliefs, rather than to neutrally encourage freethinking and freedom of conscience. And the uncivil treatment Jessica Ahlquist faced from the Christians at her school and in her larger community was an utter disgrace—so much so that the judge ruling on her case complemented her “brave stand” and noted that it was made against “the hostile response she has received from her community.”

To the community, following all the fine words of the banner—about “growing mentally and morally”, and about being kind, helpful people who valued friendship—was less important than committing fervently to the words “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen”. This is the insidious danger in holding beliefs religiously and of treating objects religiously. People’s minds can become obsessively attached to the markers of religious identity—from key phrases to artifacts—and value them so intrinsically and absolutely that they prioritize them over all other moral prescriptions. So rather than acknowledge that their banner was really only about secular values they shared with atheists and with members of minority religions, and opt to change it to something that was inclusive—which would be an unambiguous expression of the virtues of kindness and friendship even to those who did not share their religion, they opted instead to double down on their allegiance to their exclusivistic, alienating identity marker and put it above all the specific moral values it ostensibly existed to promote.

When push came to shove, for these people, enforcing deference to their religious phrases and artifacts, even in a public school, was more important than any development of moral character or any welcoming of people different from themselves. It became a matter of principle to them to fight for their exclusivist religious mode of expression over actual universality of friendship and civility—in a public school.

He also doesn’t believe that Ahlquist, whom he referred to as a “trained seal,” came up with the idea of filing a lawsuit on her own.”I’m sure she didn’t think of it herself,” he said.

And the once precocious 7th grader now belittles the intelligence of a young woman who had the guts to think for herself. For being the only one in her school willing to take a principled stand that bucked his mechanism for inculcating religious conformity, she is accused of unthinkingly being manipulated by others. The nasty hypocritical injustice and falseness of this charge (and, really all his characterizations of what happened) is mind-boggling.

But in case you are skeptical about how Jessica Ahlquist came to protest her school’s banner, here is an extensive interview wherein she speaks in her own words about each minute step by which this got started:

For thorough coverage of everything going down in Cranston the last few days, JT’s vigorous, remarkably thorough blogging has been indispensable. Here are his posts on the subject:

Victory for Jessica Ahlquist

Jessica Ahlquist Totally Was the Bad Guy

Faith Is Apparently A Poor Motivation To Be Honest

Cranston Commenters #1

Cranston Commenters #2

Cranston Commenters #3

Cranston High School Administrators – You Weren’t Heroes Then, You’re Not Heroes Now

Cranston Commenters #4

Cranston Commenters #5

Cranston Commenters #6

Cranston Commenters #7

Cranston Commenters #8

Law Enforcement Advice?

What the Ahlquist Situation Can Tell Us About Moderate Christianity

Your Thoughts?

  • Stacy

    That obsequious, banal tripe was penned by a kid of 12 or 13?

    Yeesh. Well, his prayer about growing mentally and morally sure wasn’t answered.

  • rowanvt

    I’m amused that his prayer includes “Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win.” Apparently, that part becomes invisible when he re-reads it.

    He really should follow the advice he penned.

  • http://fromthelooneybin.wordpress.com From the Looney Bin

    He sure makes a bunch of judgements about Jessica while supposedly being a Christian doesn’t he? Nice rebuttals to his asinine comments. Keep up the good work,

    • I amafreeman

      DITTO!!

  • Makoto

    Just for the fun of it, here’s a slight rewording:
    School Creed
    Each day, let’s all do our best.
    Let’s all grow morally as well as physically.
    Let’s be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers.
    Let’s be honest with ourselves and others.
    Let’s practice good sportsmanship, and smile both when we win and when we lose.
    Let’s learn the value of true friendship.
    And let’s always conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.

    Remove the references to God, change it so that it’s the kids trying to do their best, rather than God allowing them to do their best, and it’s something that could’ve remained up. But sorry, sore losers, you put prayer on there, you put the stuff about Heavenly Father and the Amen, that makes it religious, and something you can’t have the school putting up. Same way they couldn’t put one up with Praise Allah, references to a Noodly Appendage touching all the students, or whatever else.

  • penn

    I hate how essentially everyone commenting on this case focuses their ire at Jessica, which is completely off of the mark. If you have a problem with the ruling blame the judge who ruled it was unconstitutional, or the current and former supreme court justices who wrote the precedents that the judge used as a guide, or blame the writers of the constitution.

    If it’s illegal to hang the banner, then it needs to come down. Do they really think the right thing to do is just ignore illegal activity?

    In the end, I guess they harass and attack the messengers because it works. How many establishment clause violating banners or other artwork do you think are in other government building across the country? Dozens, hundreds? How many public schools do you think illegally teach some form of creationism or force prayers on students at mandatory events? Hundreds, thousands?

    Those constitutional violations are allowed to stand in most cases because no one is willing to put themselves or their families through what others like Jessica have gone through. You can’t really blame them, but hopefully Jessica’s courage will inspire others to stand up for the constitution.

  • http://www.facebook.com/egrivel ericgrivel

    What strikes me most about this article, and in particular about the comments to the article posted above, is how religious people just do not get how a prayer like this comes across to non-religious people, and often honestly do not understand why this is a problem.

    I have come to think that a religious person reading the banner in essence just skips the “Heavenly father” and “amen” parts. These are so much part and parcel of their speech and thought processes that their brains in effect treats them as noise. As a result, they subconsciously associate the criticism to the thoughts expressed between these two parts, and do not understand why people have a problem with it.

    As a non-religious person, I feel uncomfortable with a number of expressions of religion that religious people take for granted. I even have to remind myself I should not be offended if people say “bless you” (which I think is short for “God bless you” which is a prayer) if I sneeze. But as part of a relatively small minority in a society dominated by a religious majority, I find myself extremely sensitive to expressions of religion.

    I sometimes wonder if my sensitivity to religious expressions, and me feeling discriminated by them when no discrimination is intended, is comparable to the sensitivity that African Americans sometimes have to discrimination, where white Americans don’t understand where the problem is.

    Circling back to the banner being discussed, I feel offended and discriminated against when I read that banner, but I also understand that many just honestly do not understand why there is a problem. And I do not think they will understand the problem until we, non-religious or different-religious people, become more vocal, engage in more (civilized!) discussions, and become more an integrated part of society.

    Until that time, I will say “Gesundheit” when someone sneezes…

  • laurentweppe

    What strikes me most about this article, and in particular about the comments to the article posted above, is how religious people just do not get how a prayer like this comes across to non-religious people, and often honestly do not understand why this is a problem.

    Oh but a lot of religious people do get it, that’s why many christian charitable organization do not put their religious roots at the front and center when they advertise (at least in Europe).
    Of course, the religious who do get it, don’t spend their energy broadcasting “We’re totally okay if you don’t feel like praying” all the time and everywhere, which makes the nuts more visible.
    But the fact that many religious people do get it and adopt a live & let live attitude shows that the people who do raise a fuss about mandatory public prayer are most definitely not being honest, understand perfectly why there is a problem, and just play dumb, because stupid causes much less ire than evil.

  • Nicoline Smits

    (Full disclosure: Eric and I have been married for 21 years) I really don’t think only religious people treat expressions like “bless you” like noise. Most people do, especially if they come from religious backgrounds. That is why I take God’s name in vain when I drop a container of cat food or saying things like “There but for the grace of God go I.”
    Judging by the venom (to put it mildly) that Jessica’s quest to have the prayer banner removed and her subsequent victory in that matter unleashed from so-called Christians, I don’t believe that a lack of civil discourse is what we should fear from the secular corner… I would never dream of saying the things some people have posted on Jessica’s Facebook or Twitter, and neither would you. Nor, luckily, would most people I know, whether or not they are Christians, but it is quite remarkable that the most vitriol seems to come from the religious right, such as a Kansas lawmaker who sees nothing wrong in praying that Obama’s children be orphans and his wife a widow, based on one of the Psalms.

  • Lisa

    Sore losers. I guess no one actually read the banner in all those years it hung there collecting dust. They just want to keep it because they are spoiled self absorbed people.

    Kudos to Jessica for having the bravery to do what is right and make them uphold the law which they apparently have zero respect for and that principal should be removed as he obviously flunked civics.

  • I amafreeman

    SO SIMPLE!

  • I amafreeman

    SO SIMPLE.

  • I amafreeman

    Apologies; that was a reply to Makato. Reply isn’t working. ??

  • HowardV

    Oh – The times they are a changing!Bring it on!

  • Wallspen

    I am absolutely disgusted with the response this poor girl has gotten. I went to Cranston West myself: nobody cared about the prayer then, nobody cares about it now. It’s just a way for some of the Christians to complain about being persecuted. You can guarantee if it had been a Muslim banner, the thing wouldn’t have lasted a day.

    Public schools are payed for with taxes: taxes from Christians, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Buddhists, and everyone else. If you want to have prayers in your school, that is what a private school is for. This girl has received death threats over this ordeal. I’m amazed, truly amazed.

  • John Lennox

    Isn’t this better?
    As a student of Cranston High School West I pledge to do my best to improve my academic ability and to practice respectful and humane treatment to my classmates, teachers and all others in the Cranston High School community. I promise to be helpful in my dealings with classmates and to watch out for and protect those less able to protect them selves than I am. I pledge to try always to be a good sport and to smile when I lose as well as when I win. I promise to treat all my classmates in a manner of respect and friendship and will try to conduct myself so as to bring credit and honor to my High School and its traditions.

    How would you rewrite the “Prayer”?

  • F

    Applause.

  • Ben Finney

    Hearty congratulations to Jessica in her courageous stand for a principle that benefits all her peers. Thanks to all who supported (and continue to support) her, and to the judge for a quick, clear, correct decision.

    Daniel, this is a wonderful piece, laying bare the underlying conflict and in clear, straightforward language showing what is being said and done. Your insights are much appreciated. More like this, please!

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty

    Seriously? He’s whining because his ILLEGAL prayer was, in accordance with the freakin’ LAW, removed?

    Oh yeah, SOOOO oppressed, there, buddy.

    • laurentweppe

      Come see the violence inherent in the system!

  • Dunc

    I guess somebody needs to take a closer look at the teaching of Civics at Cranston High School West – it doesn’t seem to be working very well.

  • Ed

    Jessica, because of your bullshit meter, in a few years you will realize that you’re “political” leanings make you an anarchist and that’s a good thing.