Rhode Island Teen Atheist Gets $40K Scholarship

PHOTO: Jessica Ahlquist, 16, left, arrives at U.S. District Court, in Providence, R.I., with her attorney Lynette Labinger, right, in this Oct. 13, 2011 file photo.
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A Rhode Island teenager who battled her high school over the display of a prayer banner has received a $40,000-plus scholarship from those who supported her efforts.

Jessica Ahlquist, 16, won a court battle in January to have the prayer sign removed from Cranston High School West, a decision that outraged many in her school and community.

The battle began in July 2010 when Ahlquist informed the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union about a mural addressed to "Our Heavenly Father" that was displayed in the auditorium of her school. Ahlquist claimed in her lawsuit, filed through the American Civil Liberties Union, that the banner made her feel "ostracized and out of place."

The mural has been in the school since 1963, and a school committee said it was "historical" and "artistic."

The matter went before U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux who ruled Jan. 12 that "no amount of debate can make the school prayer anything other than a prayer."

The school said it would not appeal the federal court's decision.

Since the judgment was handed down, atheists and other supporters across the country have donated $42,000 to a scholarship fund for Ahlquist in order to show their support for her fight, according to Hemant Mehta, a blogger at the Friendly Atheist, who founded the scholarship fund.

"So many atheists around the country are amazed by what she did. It's not easy to take a stand on a decision that's so unpopular," said Mehta, 28, who is a high school teacher in Illinois.

Mehta said that he had been following Ahlquist's court case closely and saw her getting criticized and put down for her stance on the prayer banner. He wanted her to know she had support, and so he contacted the American Humanists Association and asked them to help set up a trust fund for Ahlquist. He then began collecting money on his website.

"Freedom From Religion [an atheist group] wanted to send flowers to her, and none of the florists in Rhode Island would even deliver flowers to her," Mehta said. "A state representative called her evil in an interview. Every time stories come up about how people are treating this 16-year-old girl, my heart just goes out to her and I want to help her in some way."

Mehta referred to a radio interview in January in which state representative Peter Palumbo called Ahlquist an "evil little thing."

"This didn't happen in the Bible Belt," Mehta said. "This happened in Rhode Island. A Rhode Island state representative called her evil, when in my perspective she's just defending the Constitution."

Ahlquist did not respond to requests for comment today, but Mehta said he believed the high school junior was aware of the scholarship fund, which could be used for tuition, room and board or books.

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