Klanston, Rhode Island?

In New England we tend to think of religious harassment and threats as something that happens somewhere else. We don't expect that high school students around here would be threatened with rape for standing up for their First Amendment rights, or that florists would be intimidated into not making deliveries to unbelievers. But exactly these things have happened in Cranston, Rhode Island, a city south of Providence.

Cranston West High School used to have a banner prominently displayed, containing a prayer addressed to the "Heavenly Father." Student Jessica Ahlquist saw this as a violation of the First Amendment and, after unsuccessfully trying to get the school to remove it, worked with the ACLU to get a court order to require its removal.

That should have been the end of it, right? A religious statement was inappropriately placed and had to be removed. After all, this is New England, not rural Mississippi. But there's something strange about Cranston, something I really don't understand. On Facebook there was an outpouring of rage against Ahlquist; comments are captured here. (Warning: strong stomach required.) Christians threatened her with violence and rape. State representative Peter Palumbo called her "an evil little thing," while at the same time claiming without evidence that she was acting under coercion. How can she be evil if her actions were under duress? The point is not logic, but incitement to hatred.

I suggest watching this video which Jessica Ahlquist made, to judge for yourselves whether she's acting like someone with a gun held to her head.

As far as I've been able to tell, no one has threatened to rape the judge who issued the order. Cranston's Christian fanatics are cowards.

A really telling example of cowardice came from several florists in Cranston, who were intimidated by threats that appear to have been mostly in their own mind into not delivering flowers to Jessica Ahlquist. Raymond Santilli of Flowers by Santilli said, "If I send flowers there, somebody may get upset with us and retaliate to us." Marina Plowman of Twins Florist evaded, "I just chose not to do it. Nothing personal against her or anybody, it was a choice that I made."

A "crowd of nearly 250 residents" (out of a city of 80,000), singing Christian hymns, demanded that the school committee appeal the ruling about the banner. Student council president Patrick McAssey asserted that the banner "is not a Christian prayer." More cowardice. If you're going to try to use the public schools to promote prayer, McAssey, at least stand by your Christianity.

There's no possible way the appeal can win, and the actions of the mob have angered enough people that there won't be a lack of money to fight the appeal. The demand for it is just an attempt at one more form of harassment.

Some would say I should be putting the word "Christian" into quotes because the fanatics aren't real Christians, but I'm not a Christian myself, and it would be arrogant of me to decide which are "real" Christians and which aren't. If they say they follow Jesus then I consider them Christians even if they threaten rape, just as I consider people who follow Muhammad's teachings Muslims even if they blow people up.

But this raises another point. The issue here isn't one of atheists vs. Christians, but first of respect for the Constitution, and if you can't have that, at least respect for human beings. I don't think all the Christians in Cranston are barbarians, but where are the good Christians? They should be speaking out against the threats and intimidation, but they've allowed the fanatical minority to go largely unchallenged, letting them give the impression that Cranston should really be called Klanston. There have been some encouraging actions, such as this gathering of Rhode Island clergy, but in Cranston itself the mob dominates, as far as I've been able to see.

The mob should listen to Rev. Betsy Garland, who spoke at that gathering: "Crucify her, crucify her, cry those who fear the future, and hold on to the past. Today, we are all Jessica Ahlquist."

It's not an unusual thing for a small group to dominate public opinion while better people are afraid to speak out. Read Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People to better understand how the mob mentality plays out. "The strongest man in the world," says Dr. Stockmann, "is the one who stands most alone," and Jessica Ahlquist has shown herself to be stronger than all the hatred-filled cowards in Cranston.

What of the banner itself? It 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. AMEN."

In defense of this banner, Cranston's religious fanatics have been cruel and antagonistic, have been dishonest, have been sore losers, and have brought shame on the high school and the city. Rather than waiting for some Heavenly Father to grant them those virtues from outside, they need to learn that good qualities come from within, and that it's up to them to improve themselves, not wait for a Heavenly Father to deliver them a desire to do good while acting like dirt till it arrives.

Copyright 2012 by Gary McGath

Published January 25, 2012

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