Sunday, October 16, 2011

48 Years too Long?

In 1963, a Rhode Island school chose to hang up an 8-foot banner in their school auditorium. This banner contains and represents the school prayer. Now, almost fifty years later, a current junior attending the high school, Jessica Ahlquist, is finally contesting the prayer. In her blog, Ahlquist explains that she is an atheist and has been since a very young age although she was born into a Catholic family. She came across the prayer banner the end of her freshman year, and soon after learned that a parent had confronted the board regarding its location. She quickly became the face of the issue, and claims the banner is a violation of her constitutional rights. Throughout her fight for the removal of the banner, Jessica has faced countless threats from her classmates both in person, as well as via internet yet her passion for this cause has driven her to continue the fight for its removal.

Ironically, the school prayer was hung on the auditorium wall the same year the Abington School District vs. Schempp was concluded, in which the Supreme Court ruled that reading Bible verses in a public school is considered unconstitutional. So what is the difference between having students read religious passages or hanging one up on the wall? Since this prayer, starts with “Our heavenly father” and concludes with the word “Amen” I agree with Jessica in her opinion that it is a violation of her constitutional rights. This prayer establishes a religion within the public school by using terms such as those previously mentioned. Also, the banner is blatently titled “School Prayer”. The banner has religious intent, which is supported by the community in their argument that the removal of the banner violates their religious freedom. On her blog Jessica says that people told her if she did not like their Christian nation she could leave rather than try to change it and on another occasion one of her peers said, “If you don’t like it, too bad, we get to do what we want!” The issue here is that you cannot establish a public school as a Christian nation. By doing so, students like Jessica who are atheist, or of any other religion, are going to feel pressure to conform to the “norm” of the community in which they are submerged. Much like in Abington vs. Schempp this Rhode Island school is favoring a single religion and trying to force it upon the student body that seems to already be predominantly Christian, which still does not pose as an acceptable excuse.

I agree with Jessica in the aspect that her rights are being violated and that the prayer is an establishment of religion, however I do not believe it needs to be removed entirely from the school. Rather, the prayer could be altered so that the words “School prayer… Our heavenly father... amen” are removed therefore making it moreso of a mission statement. The entirety of this prayer does not have religious connotation, and by simply removing these religiously affiliated portions, people could choose to view the banner as they please whether its remembering it as the school prayer from 1963, or simply seeing it as a mission statement.


Harry R. said...

I agree with Ally that the banner is a direct violation of the establishment clause. I also agree that its meaning need not be done away with. The school could use the central aspects of the prayer as a motto or as goals for the students. By removing the religious aspects, this would remove the establishment clause issues while still maintaining the positive aspects which promote kindness and other beneficial traits. There is no secular purpose achieved to labeling this as the school prayer or by addressing it to "Our Heavenly Father," thereby failing the Lemon Test.

Allison S said...

I agree with Ally also. Although the banner has been hanging for forty eight years that doesn’t mean it does not violate constitutional rights. I believe if the school is that adamant to keep the prayer they should remove certain religious phrases or reword the banner altogether. After reading it myself I did not find it that religious, besides the words prayer and our heavenly father. I also agree with Harry that modifying the prayer could become more advantageous to the school as a whole. Ultimately I think the student was right in addressing this banner for its breaking of the establishment clause.

Elena T said...

I agree that this is a violation of the Establishment Clause. The prayer clearly establishes religion just by saying "Our heavenly father." Unfortunately for Jessica, this ostracized her, which are many concerns in cases that we have read in establishment of religion in schools. This nation is all about our children and by removing the religious aspects of this prayer will be beneficial to them all.