Outside in the afternoon sunshine Tuesday, 13 members of the clergy gathered on the steps of Edgewood Congregational Church in Cranston to make their feelings about Jessica Ahlquist known.
All 13 members spoke in defense of the teen, condemning those that have threatened and verbally scalded the Cranston West student for her outspokenness against the prayer banner at her school.
Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, organized Tuesday’s press conference to attempt to put an end to the heated debates that have occurred in the aftermath of Judge Lagueux’s decision to remove the banner.
“We must put an end to the name-calling and insults,” he said. “I think most people want a civil conversation.”
Anderson released a statement last week that said he agreed with Judge Lagueux’s decision.
“An official school prayer, no matter how well-intentioned, is inconsistent with the spirit of Rhode Island and the United States Constitution,” said Anderson in a statement. “Any prayer adopted by a government agency crosses the line to state-sponsored religion.”
Anderson was a student at Cranston West when it was a combined middle and high school in the early ’60s. Yesterday, he proudly waved his high school yearbook.
Fellow faith leader, Rev. Marie Carpenter, was also at Cranston West at the time of the banner’s creation.
Yesterday, she reinforced the ideals behind the banner’s prayer: tolerance, adaptability and loving your fellow man.
Rabbi Amy Levin, vice president of the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis, said she has spoken with former Cranston West students who felt uncomfortable with the banner when it was put up in their school nearly 50 years ago. She said the families and individuals she talked with were afraid to make their stance known during an era of such religious fortitude.
“Jessica, 50 years later, managed to give voice to their discomfort,” said Levin.
The Humanists of Rhode Island organized a gathering of more than 100 people in support of Ahlquist and Judge Lagueux at the Cranston School Committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday evening. Members of the group planned to address the committee and reinforce their support of Ahlquist and the principles that she represents, though a potential appeal was not on the agenda.
Although the members of the clergy may not exactly agree with Ahquist’s belief system, they all urged the community to love and support her, actions their various faiths support.
“I urge all Rhode Islanders to speak and act in a positive and respectful manner,” said Rabbi Peter Stein of Temple Sinai in Cranston. “It’s about how we treat one another.”
Some clergy present drove home the point that Rhode Island was founded on the basis of freedom of religion and that the country as a whole was never a Christian nation.
“America is a land of freedom of religion,” said Rev. Betsy Garland, president of the RI State Council of Churches. “And dare I say freedom from religion?”
Rev. Matthew Kai was quick to point out that the church does not dictate the rules of the state.
“We are not the masters nor the servants of the state,” he said. “We are the conscience of the state.”
Anderson said people have been approaching him with the argument that America was founded on the basis of Christianity.
“It never has been a Christian nation, and I pray to God it never will be,” said Anderson, who is grateful that this country supports and encourages multiple types of faith.
He believes that the reason the Ahlquist case has gotten so much attention is due to a larger principle it represents. He said he isn’t surprised that it has garnered so much feedback.
“I’m more disappointed than surprised,” he said. “This situation has become representative of a much broader sense of change. It’s become a rallying point.”
He said the Ahlquist case was a way people could debate changing views on religion in society and the role organized religion plays in the country as a whole.
Whatever the reason for the public outcry, faith leaders are making a public attempt to put a stop to the threats and name-calling.
“Differences of opinion should be settled by conversation, not coercion,” said Rev. Leigh McCaffrey, pastor at Edgewood Congregational Church. “Young people should be able to think for themselves and not be coerced into silence.”
Garland closed her speech by giving a haunting reminder not to fear Ahlquist’s beliefs and actions. She quoted Isaiah 11:6.
“Remember that a little child shall lead them,” she said.