Rhode Island Teen's Battle Against Prayer Banner Has Gone 'Too Far,' Mayor Says

Teen atheist Jessica Ahlquist brought the banner to the attention of the ACLU.

ByABC News
January 18, 2012, 11:59 AM

Jan. 18, 2012 — -- A controversy initiated by a teenage girl over a prayer banner in a Rhode Island public school has gone "too far" according to the town's mayor.

The teen, who is 16 and says she's an atheist, has received threats and the city is paying hefty amounts of money in legal fees.

A Rhode Island judge ruled last week that a prayer mural at Cranston High School West needs to be removed "immediately," but members of the community are fighting back by pursuing an appeal that would cost the city more money in a legal battle that has already racked up tens of thousands of dollars in fees.

"I think it's gone too far," Cranston Mayor Allan Fung told ABCNews.com. "Our country was built upon civil discourse, not hate for one person exercising their constitutional rights."

Fung said, however, that if it were up to him, "I would say, respect the judge's decision and not take the appeal because, unfortunately, we could not afford these costs in these tight budgetary times."

The teenager at the center of the controversy is junior Jessica Ahlquist, who has thousands of supporters on a number of Facebook pages, Twitter and her own website.

"I would definitely say that being an atheist is a big part of my identity, mostly because I'm an activist," Ahlquist said in a YouTube video that answered questions from supporters. "I wouldn't say that I go shoving atheism down anyone else's throat. I just feel passionate about activism and specifically activism for atheism."

The battle began in July 2010 when Ahlquist informed her local ACLU chapter of the mural addressed to "Our Heavenly Father" that is displayed in the auditorium of her school. Ahlquist said in her ACLU suit 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 decided on Jan. 12 that, "No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer." He ordered that it be taken down, but the mural is currently still up but covered with a tarp.

On Tuesday night, nearly 300 members of the school community attended a school committee meeting and the majority of those in attendance were calling for an appeal to the decision so that the banner could stay up. Some carried signs that said, "Appeal or we'll vote them out," according to ABC News' Providence affiliate WLNE.

No decision on whether or not to appeal was reached at the meeting as the item was not on the pre-determined agenda.

Ahlquist was at the meeting and said she would "definitely" do what she did again, even if she has been getting frightening threats.

"A lot of people are saying that they hope I get beat up," she told WLNE. "They they would hurt me physically in school if they could. It is hurtful. It kind of disturbed me. It's mostly hurtful when it comes from students in the school."

A few extra police officers were on-hand in case anything was to get out-of-control, but nothing happened. The school board said it is not ready to make a decision yet on whether to appeal the decision.