Rhode Island Atheist Student, School Clash Over Prayer Mural Lawsuit

A 16-year-old atheist said Thursday she is confident the law is on her side in her fight over a prayer mural that she wants removed from the auditorium of her high school.

Jessica Ahlquist said her side is "very strong" after attorneys for her and the city of Cranston made their case to Senior Judge Ronald R. Lagueux in U.S. District Court in Providence. Ahlquist believes the mural should be taken down.

"It's the right thing to do," said Ahlquist, a junior at Cranston High School West.

Ahlquist sued in federal court in April, saying the mural is offensive to non-Christians. Ahlquist has been an atheist since age 10. She is represented by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Lagueux took the case under advisement. He visited the school auditorium earlier in the day to see the mural in person.

Attorney Joseph Cavanagh Jr., who is defending the city, says the mural is a historical artifact from the school's early days in the 1960s and serves no religious purpose.

He said the prayer is displayed in a secular, not a religious, setting.

"It's not forced upon anyone. It's a historical document as a tradition of the school," Cavanagh said.

The prayer encourages students to strive academically and begins with the words "Our Heavenly Father" and ends with "Amen."

The Class of 1963 presented murals of the prayer and the school creed to the school in September 1963. The Class of 1963 was the first to graduate from the school.

The prayer was written by student David Bradley, now 64. Cavanagh said the prayer hasn't been recited in the school since 1962 and that there was no history of complaints about the mural. He said the prayer was written in the course of developing other traditions at the school, including a mascot, creed and school colors.

Ahlquist noticed the mural at the end of her freshman year. She started a Facebook page to support removing it and argued for taking it down before the school committee, according to court filings.

The school committee voted in March to keep the mural on display and fight litigation.

Ahlquist's lawyer, Lynette Labinger, said the mural has "no fingerprints of student artwork" and runs afoul of the Constitution.

"The prayer is not, as the defendant would suggest, anything like a Pledge of Allegiance. In contrast, this is a prayer," Labinger said. "It's a religious communication and it's in a public school."

Cavanagh argued that Ahlquist made public statements claiming she was not offended by the prayer. Labinger countered that Ahlquist made those statements to defend herself from bullying, intimidation and harassment she experienced because of her opposition to the mural.