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: