Ahlquist v. Cranston

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Ahlquist v. Cranston
Seal of the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island.jpg
United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island
Full case nameMark Ahlquist, as next friend, parent, and guardian of Jessica Ahlquist v. City of Cranston and School Committee of the City of Cranston
Date decidedJanuary 11, 2012
Docket nos.1:11-cv-00138
Citations840 F. Supp. 2d 507
Judge sittingRonald R. Lagueux
Case history
Subsequent actionsMotion for reconsideration denied (April 12, 2012)
Case holding
The "School Prayer" banner violates the Establishment Clause

Ahlquist v. Cranston, 840 F. Supp. 2d 507 (D.R.I. 2012), was a case where the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island ruled that a "School Prayer" banner posted in Cranston High School West was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution and ordered its removal. The suit was brought by Mark Ahlquist on behalf of his minor daughter Jessica Ahlquist, a student at the school, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union.[1][2][3]


When Cranston High School West was opened in 1959, its student council was charged with selection of a school prayer along with its school creed, colors, and mascot. The prayer, adopted in 1960, replaced the Lord's Prayer in daily recitation until 1962, following the United States Supreme Court ruling in Engel v. Vitale. Banners bearing both the school creed and prayer were gifts from the school's first graduating class (1963), and were affixed in the school auditorium.[4] The text of the prayer reads:

Our Heavenly Father.

Grant us each day the desire to do our best.
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically.
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers.
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others.
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win.
Teach us the value of true friendship.
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.


— School Prayer, Cranston High School West


Jessica Ahlquist was born in 1995, and lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. Her father, Mark Ahlquist, was co-plaintiff as parent, guardian, and next friend.[5]


In July 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to Cranston School District superintendent on behalf of an unnamed parent who complained about the banner.[6] Initially, school officials thought the banner could be modified, avoiding the prohibitive expense of a lawsuit.[7] Ahlquist had noticed the banner in her first year in high school. After reading about the complaint, she decided to sit in on the school board meetings. She also created a Facebook page[8] to raise support for the cause. At an August 2010 meeting of the Cranston School Committee, a subcommittee was asked to make recommendations about the disposition of the banner; Ahlquist attended the public meetings of the subcommittee in November 2010 and February 2011. At the end of the November meeting, out of safety concerns, a police escort was provided for Ahlquist and one other person who spoke in favor of the banner's removal.[9] At a contentious meeting of the full committee, she argued the case for the removal of the banner and a similar display at Bain Middle School.[10] The committee voted 4-3 in favor of keeping the banner in place, despite a budget deficit and the threat of an ACLU lawsuit.[11]

The Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU asked Ahlquist if she would serve as a plaintiff in a lawsuit.[5] The suit was filed in April 2011.[12] The Cranston School Committee had made defense arrangements with Joseph V. Cavanagh, Jr. and The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty which represented them without charge.[13]

District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux issued a decision in favor of Ahlquist on January 11, 2012.[14] The decision was in part based on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and the United States Supreme Court's earlier rulings in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), and Lee v. Weisman (1992),[9] all three of which had a local Rhode Island component: the Lee case was from nearby Providence, the Lynch case was from Pawtucket bordering Providence on the opposite side from Cranston, and the Lemon case was consolidated at the appeals level from both Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.


At the hearing, Lagueux remarked that Ahlquist "is clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community". Following the ruling on the case, police involvement has increased, both escorting Ahlquist to classes[15] and investigating threats, mostly originating in Cranston.[3] An unnamed student was disciplined by the school because of threats.[5][16] Local florists also refused a delivery to Ahlquist.[17] Two high school students from other states have described their objections to school prayer as inspired by her activism.[18]

Religious leaders from the Rhode Island State Council of Churches rallied to defend Ahlquist and condemn the language used to describe her.[19] The organization's executive minister, Rev. Dr. Donald Anderson attended Cranston West when the banner went up; he supported Lagueux's decision.[20]

On the day following the ruling, Rhode Island State Representative Peter G. Palumbo spoke on a local radio show and referred to Ahlquist as "an evil little thing".[5][21] While the supporters of the banner raised funds for the preservation of the banner in the event of its ordered removal by selling T-shirts with the banner's full text, Ahlquist's supporters raised funds with "Evil little thing" T-shirts, the proceeds going to a college education fund established for her.[22][23]

On February 16, 2012, the Cranston School Committee decided not to appeal by a 5-2 vote.[24] The banner was removed, intact, during the first weekend in March, and the school and city agreed to pay the ACLU $150,000 in legal fees.[25] On the day of the agreement, a group consisting of three students, three alumni, and a North Providence resident filed a motion to stay.[26] The motion was dismissed on the basis of being untimely and that they lacked standing.[27] The group filed a notice of appeal over the ruling barring their intervention.[28] Of the seven appellants, as of October 2012 four had not signed the notice of appeal, and mail sent by the First Circuit Court of Appeals to a fifth appellant's address was returned as undeliverable with no forwarding address.[29] While various parties remained interested in acquiring the banner a year after the case had been decided, the banner remained in storage.[30] In September 2013, an alumni group presented a new mural to the school containing the school's creed.[31]


  1. ^ Winston, Kimberly (January 14, 2012). "Jessica Ahlquist, Teenage Atheist, Wins Case To Remove Prayer Banner From Cranston High School". The Huffington Post.
  2. ^ Schieldrop, Mark (January 13, 2012). "Police, School Officials Investigating Online Prayer Case Reaction for Cyberbullying". Cranston Patch. Archived from the original on 2012-01-15.
  3. ^ a b "Threats against RI atheist teen being investigated". Boston Globe. January 13, 2012. Archived from the original on July 11, 2012. Retrieved January 22, 2012.
  4. ^ Thomas A. Lewis (19 July 2012). "Rhode Island: A Resident Hears Dissent in Roger Williams' State". Retrieved 29 December 2014.
  5. ^ a b c d Goodnough, Abby; Jen McCaffery (contributing) (January 26, 2012). "Student Faces Town's Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 26, 2012.
  6. ^ Brown, Stephen (July 6, 2010), Letter to Superintendent (PDF) (letter), Rhode Island Chapter ACLU, retrieved January 29, 2012
  7. ^ "Cranston weighs changing words on 'prayer' banner", Turnto10.com, Media General Communications Holdings, July 22, 2010, archived from the original on July 24, 2010, retrieved January 29, 2012
  8. ^ "Facebook page: "Support the Removal of the Cranston High School West Prayer".
  9. ^ a b Ahlquist v. Cranston (D.R.I. 01/11/2012). Text
  10. ^ Crimaldi, Laura (October 13, 2011). "Jessica Ahlquist, Rhode Island Student, Confident Her Side Is 'Very Strong' In School Prayer Mural Suit". The Huffington Post.
  11. ^ Metcalf, Andrew (March 8, 2011). "School Committee Decides to Defend Banner". Cranston Patch. Retrieved January 27, 2012.
  12. ^ American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU Files Suit Over Cranston School Prayer Banner Archived 2012-02-18 at the Wayback Machine 4th April, 2011
  13. ^ Metcalf, Andrew (March 29, 2011). "School School Committee Finds Lawyers to Defend Banner". Cranston Patch. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
  14. ^ Winston, Kimberly (January 13, 2012). "Judge rules against prayer banner in R.I. school". The Washington Post.
  15. ^ Ng, Christina (January 18, 2012). "Rhode Island Teen's Battle Against Prayer Banner Has Gone 'Too Far,' Mayor Says". ABC News. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
  16. ^ Armental, Maria (January 16, 2012). "Cranston student disciplined over comments against fellow student in prayer banner case; student walkout thwarted Friday". Providence Journal. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
  17. ^ Davis, Paul (January 19, 2012). "Florist found in Connecticut to deliver roses to Cranston West prayer banner opponent / Poll". Providence Journal. Retrieved January 20, 2012. After florists in Cranston and Warwick refused, a Connecticut florist agreed to deliver the flowers.
  18. ^ Metcalf, Andrew (June 24, 2012). "Ahlquist Inspires Two Others To Contest Prayers At Their Schools". Cranston Patch. Archived from the original on July 7, 2012. Retrieved January 27, 2012.
  19. ^ Smith, Matt; Sotnik, Kathryn (January 24, 2012), "Religious group defends Ahlquist", WPRI.com, archived from the original on January 30, 2012, retrieved January 29, 2012
  20. ^ Kalunian, Kim (January 19, 2012), "Council of Churches leader supports removal of prayer banner", Warwick Beacon, Beacon Communications, retrieved January 29, 2012
  21. ^ NewsTalk 630 WPRO & 99.7 FM (January 12, 2012). "Palumbo calls Cranston student "Evil Little Thing"". John DePetro Show. Providence, RI. WPRO. Archived from the original on October 18, 2011. Retrieved January 27, 2012.
  22. ^ DeQuattro, Dee (January 24, 2012), "Rival shirts go on sale amidst the banner controversy", WPRO News, WPRO 630AM 99.7FM, retrieved January 27, 2012[permanent dead link]
  23. ^ Schieldrop, Mark (January 27, 2012). "As Committee Nears Appeal Decision, Banner Saga Reaches New York Times". Cranston Patch. Retrieved January 27, 2012.
  24. ^ Crimaldi, Laura (February 17, 2012), "Cranston Votes Not to Appeal Prayer Banner Case", ABC News, retrieved 2012-02-17
  25. ^ "Cranston agrees to pay ACLU $150,000 in legal fees, ending prayer-banner fight". Providence Journal. March 6, 2012. Retrieved March 6, 2012.
  26. ^ "7 seek stay of order to remove prayer banner in RI". BostonGlobe.com. NY Times. Associated Press. March 7, 2012. Retrieved April 14, 2012.
  27. ^ Arditi, Lynn (April 12, 2012). "Federal judge: Cranston prayer banner case is over". Providence Journal. Retrieved April 14, 2012.
  28. ^ "Group wants prayer banner case reopened", WPRI.com, May 14, 2012, archived from the original on May 18, 2012, retrieved May 14, 2012
  29. ^ Ahlquist v. Mesagno, et al, no. 12-1614 (1st Cir. filed May 21, 2012), order, Sep. 20 2012; retrieved from PACER, October 22, 2012
  30. ^ Jonic, Flo (February 18, 2013). "Prayer banner still in storage". Rhode Island Public Radio. Retrieved June 4, 2013.
  31. ^ Kuffner, Alex (21 September 2013). "Cranston West Class of '63 presents school with new banners". Providence Journal. Retrieved 23 September 2013.

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