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Nonbelievers Applaud Court Ruling to Remove Religious Banner from Rhode Island Public School

Contact: Brian Magee, 202-238-9088
bmagee@americanhumanist.org

(Washington, DC - January 12, 2012) -- American Humanist Association leaders applauded the ruling issued last night by U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux ordering the immediate removal of a prayer banner in a Rhode Island high school. The suit was brought by student Jessica Ahlquist, and the ruling supports her claim that the banner violates church-state separation legal principles.

"We are so proud of Jessica for fighting to protect church-state separation," said American Humanist Association Executive Director Roy Speckhardt. "She recognized injustice, stood up for what is right, and persevered in the face of harassment. She fought for the rights of nonbelievers and religious minorities and is an example for everyone."

The banner, hanging in the auditorium of Cranston High School West in Cranston, Rhode Island, is labeled "School Prayer" and begins with "Our Heavenly Father." The American Humanist Association ran a full-page newspaper advertisement in Cranston during the recent holiday season that stated, "Bias Against Atheists is Naughty, Not Nice," because of the harassment Ahlquist experienced from some fellow students and community members during the lawsuit.

Judge Lagueux stated in the ruling that the “guiding principle” of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is “government neutrality” and that “no amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.” The judge also noted that the open meeting conducted to get public input about Ahlquist’s request to remove the banner “at times resembled a religious revival.” In addition, Lagueux didn’t give weight to the claim that the mural should stay for traditional reasons—having been erected in 1963—stating that “no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction.”

"Today's ruling by the District Court again confirms something that by now should be crystal clear to government officials: school-sponsored prayer has no place on the walls of a public school," said Bill Burgess, attorney and legal coordinator of the American Humanist Association’s legal arm, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. "The court clearly noted that the prayer mural's long-standing nature, considered a school tradition by some, did not overcome its unconstitutional nature and justify its continued presence."

The AHA is proud to play a role in Ahlquist’s future by working with Hemant Mehta, blogger for the popular website The Friendly Atheist, to manage an education trust fund to help pay the cost of her future education. The Scholarship for Jessica Ahlquist account has already raised over $3,000 from more than 100 contributors.

The complete text of the ruling can be found here.

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The Appignani Humanist Legal Center is a project of the American Humanist Association that provides legal assistance to defend the constitutional rights of secular Americans by challenging violations of the separation of church and state guaranteed by the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and seeking equal rights for humanists, atheists and other freethinkers.

The American Humanist Association (www.americanhumanist.org) advocates for the rights and viewpoints of humanists. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., its work is extended through more than 100 local chapters and affiliates across America.

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.

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