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Comments from Ahlquist v. Cranston Press Conference

Posted: April 04, 2011|Category: Church and State

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Below are comments attributable to the individuals participating in the news conference announcing the lawsuit’s filing:

Jessica Ahlquist, plaintiff in the lawsuit: “The prayer's presence in the school promotes and endorses the ideals of Christianity and the concept of a single “Heavenly Father”. I firmly believe that it should not be on display in a public school and is in direct violation of my and other students' civil rights.  As an atheist, I do not feel included in the message of the prayer; in fact, I feel excluded.  And the public hearings that I have attended have added to that feeling-- that my views and beliefs don't count, or have less value than those of the Christian majority.  I don't feel that I or anyone else should have to feel that way at school. The prayer does not belong in a public school and that's why I have come forward to challenge it.”

Rabbi Peter Stein, leader of a congregation in Cranston: “The prayer at Cranston West is inappropriate to be posted in a public school.  It has an exclusionary effect on those who are not religious and also on those whose religious practices differ from the language, format, and images of this school prayer. While the prayer is written with the hope of being neutral and non- denominational, Jewish prayer would not use the expression “Heavenly Father,” and indeed for many Jews, this phrase feels Christian and not something appropriate for us to be reciting. I hope that the prayer will be taken down and the students and families will all feel welcome and included in the life of the school. Let each individual pursue their own path of religious involvement, in the privacy of their homes and in the privacy of their own synagogues, churches, and mosques.”

Reverend Don Anderson, a Baptist minister and alumnus of Cranston High School West, added: “Any prayer adopted by a government agency crosses the line to state sponsored religion. Baptists, Quakers and other religious dissidents came to the colony of Rhode Island because here there was no state sponsored religion. This is not the time to be defending a prayer on the walls of the Cranston West auditorium. This is the time to work together to enhance Rhode Island’s rich tradition of religious diversity and a climate where all religious traditions are welcome. The Council of Churches stands ready to help Cranston develop a program that would help students grow in their understanding of various faith traditions.”

Lynette Labinger, RI ACLU volunteer attorney: “It is always difficult to be that one person who steps forward to challenge an exclusionary practice or message and face the majority response--your objection is “ruining it for the rest of us.”  But that is the genius of the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights and the unique message that it stands for and conveys, especially now, throughout the world--that we have freedom in this country to practice whatever religion we choose, or none at all, and that Government should not be taking sides, particularly in our public schools.  It takes an extraordinary amount of courage for a young person such as Jessica  to  come  forward,  in  the face of  often  heated  and  angry  rhetoric,  and  to  demand that her rights be protected, and she deserves the community's respect for doing so.”

Steven Brown, RI ACLU executive director: “The First Amendment was specifically designed to protect religious freedom by insuring government neutrality in religious matters. Members of small or unpopular religions, and people of no religion, should not be cast as outsiders by a government that is supposed to represent all of its citizens regardless of religious belief. Just as important, the First Amendment was designed to protect the majority religion from being politicized and trivialized by government. This case demonstrates the timeless importance of both of these principles.”

Thomas Bender, RI ACLU volunteer attorney: “Our constitution recognizes that parents have a right to guide the religious upbringing of their children as they believe is best, not according to what the government thinks is best, and our society provides plenty of religious communities in which to do so.  They entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition that trust on the understanding that schools won’t advance religious views that conflict with the private beliefs of the student or his or her family.”

Read the full news release for this press conference.

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