A 16-year-old Rhode Island atheist has her heavily Roman Catholic town of 80,000 in an uproar after she successfully sued her school to take down a eight-foot-tall prayer that hung in the school auditorium for 49 years, reports the New York Times. One state representative called Jessica Ahlquist “an evil little thing,” there have been threats, and police have escorted her to school. “I was amazed,” said the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has given Jessica $13,000 from support and scholarship funds. "We haven’t seen a case like this in a long time, with this level of revilement and ostracism and stigmatizing."
The prayer banner was written by a seventh grade student in 1963, and it asks "Our Heavenly Father" to help all the students at Cranston High School West to "do our best" and "to be kind." After a parent filed a complaint with the ACLU in 2010, Ahlquist spoke out at all the school hearings and started a Facebook page calling for the prayer's removal. “It seemed like it was saying, every time I saw it, ‘You don’t belong here,'" said Ahlquist, who was baptized a Catholic but decided she did not believe in God at age 10. When the ACLU filed a lawsuit, it asked Ahlquist to be the plaintiff. Ahlquist compared the removal of the prayer to a child getting a vaccination: "I feel they might see it as a very negative thing right now, but I’m defending their Constitution, too." The prayer is currently covered by a tarp while the school board decides whether to appeal this month's ruling by a federal judge that it is unconstitutional to display it. (Read more Rhode Island stories.)