Rally at billboard supports Cranston teen, politics free from religion
Jessica Ahlquist wore boots with high heels to a photo shoot Sunday afternoon.
It didn’t go unnoticed, although the Cranston West junior hasn’t earned a reputation for making fashion statements in recent months. Rather, it is her fight to remove the prayer mural at West that has placed her in the spotlight.
And in the wake of U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux’s order last Wednesday that the prayer must come down, Ahlquist has been the target of threats predominately on Facebook and Twitter. Death threats posted on the Cranston Herald Facebook were removed by the newspaper within minutes of them being posted.
Ahlquist didn’t appear worried by the threats and she was comfortable with the attention received by the media.
“It seems to have died down,” she said, adding that police are investigating.
Ahlquist was one of about 30 people who showed up Sunday afternoon across from the Extended Stay Hotel on West Natick Road in Warwick to have their picture taken beneath a Route 295 billboard paid for by the Freedom From Religion Foundation featuring the U.S. Capitol building and the words “Keep Religion Out of Politics.”
The sign went up on Jan. 6 and will be there for at least two months, says Debbie Flitman, who hopes to start a Rhode Island chapter of the foundation. Flitman, who moved here about four years ago from New York, said she is amazed by how Rhode Island officials seek to push their religious beliefs on others.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” she said.
She is hopeful the billboard, albeit the only one in the state, “will get out the message to elected officials to keep religion out of their decisions.”
She said she was especially “dismayed” by the Cranston School Committee that wanted to keep the prayer banner where it is, and the zeal with which some members voted to do so. She feels their actions are an affront to her beliefs. Flitman is Jewish.
In his decision, Lagueux points to the prayer’s opening words “our Heavenly Father” as being exclusively Christian and leaving out Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists.
Ahlquist said she read all 40 pages of the judge’s decision.
“I think the court did a great job,” she said. “I agree with everything he said.”
Ahlquist was among supporters Sunday who were bundled up and gravitated toward the sunshine to ward off the bite of the wind making it feel colder than the 23-degree temperature. They had come from different corners of the state and represented different secular groups, according to Steve Ahlquist, who issued a press release from the Humanists of Rhode Island.
There were no speeches; just a gathering with everyone smiling for the camera with the billboard rising above them in the background. The group disbursed quickly, with many stopping to give Jessica Ahlquist a few words of support before heading for the warmth of their cars.
She said she was buoyed by her friends who, whether they agreed or not with the court’s decision, stood by her.
“Definitely there are a lot of people who resent me for what I’ve done,” she acknowledged, however.
Ahlquist plans to return to school Tuesday. She said she is a bit nervous, “but I’m not too worried about it … I’ll go into it with my head held high.”
Ahlquist said she plans to study communications upon graduating from high school, although, with all she has been through, she also expresses an interest in law.
"The FFRF recognized the historical importance of Roger Williams and our state in establishing the first government that guaranteed freedom of conscience, and our organization of the photo shoot shows our support of these essential patriotic values," Steve Ahlquist, Jessica’s uncle and organizer of the group said in a statement.
He described Humanism as “a non-theistic philosophy based on reason, compassion, optimism and action.” He said Humanists of Rhode Island was formed in April of 2011 “with the intention of demonstrating our values through volunteerism and service work.”
“No one is trying to shut down churches,” he said yesterday. Rather, he explained, the intent of the group is to provide an organization where people who share the desire to help one another can come together.
“The actual message is to help each other as humans and to do good things,” he said.
The group, however, may become more active should the Cranston School Committee appeal the decision. Also, he said the Humanists, as they are “centered on human rights and constitutional rights,” may actively support those favoring gay marriage.
As for the prayer issue at Cranston West, he said several students had talked about the appropriateness of a prayer in the school and after some discussion among family members, his niece, with the support of her father, acted.
“We never thought it would go to court,” he said. “It [the law] seemed pretty clear on this.”
When the School Committee decided not to back down, he said, “It got rancorous quickly.” He said the reaction to the court decision was more vehement than he expected and the level of anger shocked him.