Jessica Ahlquist, a Rhode Island high school student who happens to be an atheist, challenged her local school board, requesting that a ‘prayer mural’ that had been hanging in the school auditorium since 1963 be removed.
The 8ftx4ft mural in the auditorium read:
OUR HEAVENLY FATHER, GRANT US EACH DAY THE DESIRE TO DO OUR BEST, TO GROW MENTALLY AND MORALLY AS WELL AS PHYSICALLY, TO BE KIND AND HELPFUL TO OUR CLASSMATES AND TEACHERS, TO BE HONEST WITH OURSELVES AS WELL AS WITH OTHERS, HELP US TO BE GOOD SPORTS AND SMILE WHEN WE LOSE AS WELL AS WHEN WE WIN, TEACH US THE VALUE OF TRUE FRIENDSHIP, HELP US ALWAYS TO CONDUCT OURSELVES SO AS TO BRING CREDIT TO CRANSTON HIGH SCHOOL WEST.
The school board rejected her request and so she and her father sued. A US District Court judge ruled on January 11, 2012 that the mural was unconstitutional and ordered its immediate removal. The school board that had voted 4-3 to keep the mural has said that they will comply and not appeal the ruling. This is probably a wise move since the mural seems to clearly endorse religion and a slew of Supreme Court precedents have said that agents of state or federal governments (and a public school is one) cannot do that. (This is a topic (shameless plug coming up) that I cover in my 2009 book God vs Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom.)
The judge quoted the Supreme Court opinion in McCreary County v. ACLU:
The touchstone for our analysis is the principle that the First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion. When the government acts with the ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion, it violates that central Establishment Clause value of official religious neutrality, there being no neutrality when the government’s ostensible object is to take sides.
The judge said that the record showed that the original purpose of the mural (the first prong of the Lemon test says that any government action must have a secular purpose) was clearly religious and that the present purpose was murky and not clearly secular. He added that the mural violated the second and third prongs of the Lemon test and also failed the endorsement test. Since all the tests have to be passed to make an action constitutional under the Establishment Clause, he had no trouble ruling that it was not.
He emphasized that the court has to be particularly vigilant in enforcing constitutional protections in situations where people are compelled to be present, such as students in a school, and hence the threshold for showing an actual injury caused by an action (a requirement for bringing a legal suit) is low. In this case, for example, the threshold did not require that Ahlquist be traumatized by the mural. In fact, she herself said that she was not offended by it. The very act of endorsement is sufficient injury because, as the Supreme court ruled in Santa Fe v. Doe:
School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”
In his ruling, the judge also addressed whether tradition was a sufficient reason for retaining the mural, as some supporters had claimed. The refrain “But it has always been like this ” is often uttered by defenders of a practice that has ceased to have any validity and has come under attack. But just as patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, appealing to tradition as the only reason for doing something is a sure sign that the practice has no intrinsic merit. The judge clearly felt this way, saying:
The Court refrains from second-guessing the expressed motives of the Committee members, but nonetheless must point out that tradition is a murky and dangerous bog. While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction.
What is noteworthy is that the basic sentiments expressed in the prayer are unimpeachable and with slight tinkering the mural could have passed constitutional muster. Here’s an example of how it could have been modified:
OUR HEAVENLY FATHER, GRANT LET US EACH DAY
THEDESIRE TO DO OUR BEST, … BRING CREDIT TO CRANSTON HIGH SCHOOL WEST.
But religious people often don’t want the practices advocated by their belief, they just want to be able to have their beliefs be seen as having some special standing in the public square.
Jessica Ahlquist is a plucky young woman. It could not have been easy to stand up to the bullying, taunting, abuse, and threats that she received (and still continues to get) from some of her peers and also from adult members of the community who should know better. The judge appreciated this, saying “Plaintiff is clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community.”
So well done Jessica! I doubt that I would have had your courage when I was your age.
(Over at What Would JT Do?, JT Eberhard has been covering this story and the reactions to it in some detail.)