A statue of Roger Williams overlooks downtown Providence, RI.

(Walter Bibikow / Getty Images)

Conflicts over religion and politics are alive and well in Roger Williams’ state.

Yet in the former English colony that Williams founded in 1636 on the principles of religious liberty and church-state separation, these conflicts have little to do with the “red” and “blue” political identities so commonplace in our political discourse. We Rhode Islanders don’t divide ourselves mainly along party lines. After all, the vast majority of the state’s residents are Democrats. And confessional lines aren’t the state’s main fault lines either, as Rhode Island is second only to Massachusetts as the most Catholic state in the Union.

Nonetheless, Rhode Islanders vigorously—and sometimes viciously—debate the history and the future of religion’s place in the state’s public square. These debates take place not simply between religious or political communities but also within them: Democrats disagreeing with Democrats and Catholics disagreeing with Catholics. This means that Rhode Island is a different kind of Democratic stronghold than most of its more “progressive” New England neighbors. And it’s a powerful reminder of the inadequacy of many of the conventional labels that we—scholars, journalists, and citizens—use as shorthand to define the competing “sides” of our religio-political controversies.

Take, for example, the recent case of Ahlquist v. the City of Cranston, a battle over whether a prayer banner hanging in a public high school auditorium represents or violates the religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution. A gift from the class of 1963, Cranston High School West’s first graduating class, the banner 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.

In April 2011, with the backing of the ACLU, Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year-old Rhode Island native who was raised Catholic and now is an avowed atheist, sued the city of Cranston. Demanding that the city remove the banner from her school’s auditorium, Ahlquist claimed that, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the school was violating her civil rights. Ahlquist and her ACLU lawyers argued that the banner constituted a government endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint. Therefore, as a condition of attending the public school, Ahlquist was being subjected to a religious teaching with which she did not agree, and she was devalued and ostracized for her dissent.

Ahlquist’s lawsuit, however, did not spark the controversy. The row over the banner began roughly a year earlier when, in July of 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote to Cranston school district superintendent, Peter Nero. The ACLU’s letter urged Nero to remove the banner, which had been displayed in Cranston High School West for the past 50 years. In the letter, the ACLU argued that a permanent display of a prayer in a public school not only is unconstitutional but also conflicts with the legacy of the state’s founder, Williams. As the ACLU’s Rhode Island executive director, Steven Brown, explained: “Rhode Island, as a pluralistic state founded on religious freedom, should be particularly sensitive to the divisiveness of government-sponsored displays promoting religion.”

Cranston’s school board responded quickly. Throughout the fall and winter, the board made the fate of the banner a frequent agenda item, and opened the debate to comments from the community. Cranston residents took notice. They showed up to the normally lightly attended board meetings in the hundreds, anxious to make their opinions known. The meetings became ad hoc, and sometimes vitriolic, debates about the role of religion in America’s public spaces.

Most of those who spoke in favor of keeping the banner made reference to their own religious beliefs. One speaker said, “If people want to be Atheist, it’s their choice and they can go to hell if they want.” The vice chair of the school board, and practicing Catholic, Frank Lombardi, stated that, “I cannot leave God at the doorstep because I believe in God. I’m very religious and I pray every day.” Citing his own Catholic faith, Superintendent Nero said that while he was concerned about the cost of defending the school from a potential lawsuit, he also recommended that the prayer banner remain in place. Those who supported removing the banner—a good number of whom also emphasized their own religious commitments—were met with boos and insults. Two pro-banner speakers suggested that Ahlquist be charged with hate crimes for asking to have the banner removed.  

On March 7, 2011, the school board decided—on a vote of 4-3—not to remove the banner. With non-litigious avenues for redress exhausted, Ahlquist and the ACLU filed suit the following month. After a tour of Cranston High School West to see the banner himself, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, heard arguments at a brief hearing on October 13, 2011.

Before the District Court, the banner’s defenders argued that its significance is not principally “religious” but “is an historical memento of the school’s founding days, with a predominantly secular purpose.” Judge Lagueux, however, did not accept this claim. On January 11, 2012, he ruled in favor of Ahlquist and ordered the banner’s removal. (In March, Superintendent Nero removed the banner and stored it in an “undisclosed location.”) 

In his decision, Judge Lagueux referred to “the tenor of the School Committee’s open meeting [which] at times resembled a religious revival.” He noted the “calls of ‘Amen’” voiced in response to supporters of the banner making their case before the school board, as well as the centrality of religious witnessing to the arguments of most of its supporters. Despite their claims otherwise, the banner’s proponents, he declared, were not in fact attempting to protect the school’s historical traditions, but instead were protecting the establishment of religion in a public school. For Judge Lagueux:

No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that. Its opening, calling upon the “Heavenly Father,” is an exclusively Christian formulation of a monotheistic deity, leaving out, inter alia, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists alike.

While Judge Lagueux noted that the “[p]rayer espouses values of honesty, kindness, friendship and sportsmanship,” all of which he called “commendable” values for a school to instill in its students, he nonetheless concluded that, “reliance on God’s intervention as the way to achieve those goals is not consistent with a secular purpose.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Judge Lagueux’s decision concludes with a quote from Roger Williams’ 1655 “Letter to Providence” (a passage also found in Abington v. Schempp, the 1963 Supreme Court ruling that deemed school-sponsored Bible-readings in public schools unconstitutional):

There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or human combination, or society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked on one ship; upon which supposal, I affirm that all the liberty of conscience I ever pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges, that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.

For Williams, and it seems, for Judge Lagueux, religious pluralism is an inevitable part of American society. And when different religious groups exist in the same society, the only way to preserve freedom of conscience is for all to be free to worship in their own way —or in no way at all.

In Cranston, and throughout Rhode Island, the fallout from Judge Lagueux’s decision was dramatic and ugly, especially for Ahlquist. On a popular call-in radio show, Peter Palumbo, a Democratic state representative from Cranston, referred to Ahlquist as “an evil little thing.” The comment section of the Providence Journal’s story announcing Lagueux’s decision quickly filled up with denouncements of Ahlquist, the ACLU, and Judge Lagueux. One commenter offered up the violent prayer, “may god strike her dead.” Following online threats, as well as bullying in school, Ahlquist received police escorts. And when Ahlquist’s supporters attempted to send her flowers, local florists refused to take the order.

The author of The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Williams’ famous treatise on the necessity of a “wall of separation” between church and state, would surely have been disappointed—though not surprised—by this reaction. Having already fallen afoul of Anglican authorities in England, Williams, a Calvinist turned Baptist minister, was exiled from Massachusetts in 1635 for spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous” ideas on religion, as well as on politics. After initially receiving shelter from the Wampanoags Williams founded a settlement, which he called “Providence,” based on freedom of conscience and the principle that government should legislate only civil, not religious, matters. Three hundred and seventy-six years later, the vitriolic response to Ahlquist embodies precisely what Williams knew—and experienced firsthand—are the inevitable consequences of state and church entanglement: those who disagree with the religion of the majority—and the explicitly or implicitly established religion of the state—are persecuted for adhering to personal conscience

Yet not all of Cranston’s residents reacted with such animosity. A number of local religious leaders have supported Ahlquist’s cause. Even some of those who disagreed with her lawsuit have been highly critical of the treatment Ahlquist received. Soon after the ruling came down, in January 2012, the Rhode Island State Council of Churches hosted an interfaith conference, “Raising our Voices for Mutual Respect, Tolerance and Faith.” The event brought together religious leaders representing mainline Protestant, evangelical, Reform and Conservative Jewish, Muslim, and Unitarian Universalist communities, most of whom serve religious communities in Cranston itself. Two of the event’s speakers even attended Cranston West as high school students. David M. Brown, the interim executive director of the American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island, summed up the sentiment of many of the gathering’s participants: “Those of us who are following Jesus should be saying to Jessica, ‘We respect you. We appreciate your raising these important issues for us … Yes, some of us might vigorously (but gently) disagree with your ideas, but that will never, ever prompt us to stop loving you.’’

Criticism of how many Rhode Islanders came to demonize Ahlquist has not been limited to the state’s religious minorities. The Catholic bishop of the Providence Diocese, Thomas J. Tobin supported keeping the banner. But in the wake of the court decision, and the backlash against Ahlquist, Tobin spoke firmly against many of Ahlquist’s detractors: “resorting to personally insulting and even threatening language in such public controversies is totally unacceptable, especially when directed at a young person such as Jessica Ahlquist, who has every right to promote her beliefs and express her opinion.”

Despite what some might see as the red-state tone of many of Ahlquist’s critics, Rhode Island is solidly Democratic. It has only voted Republican in presidential elections four times since 1924 (in 1952, 56, 72, and 84). And in recent elections, Democratic presidential candidates have carried around 60 percent of the vote. The state representative who called Ahlquist “an evil little thing”? A Democrat. Perhaps most strikingly, two Democrats and two Christians—school board vice chair, Frank Lombardi, a Catholic who opposed removing the Cranston school prayer banner, and the Rev. Gene Dyszlewski, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, who spoke out in support of Ahlquist—have used the Cranston banner fight to launch statewide political careers. The two men will face off in a Democratic primary in September to represent Cranston in the state senate. (Similarly, Ahlquist’s experience launched her as a leader in the atheist and humanist circles. She was even a featured speaker at the Reason Rally, a major gathering of secularists in Washington, D.C. that took place this past March.)

Rhode Island’s legacy as a birthplace of religious freedom in North America means that the state has particularly salient historical models for contemporary religious leaders who, like Roger Williams, worry about the effects on both politics and religion when religion plays a central role in political discourse. Nonetheless, Rhode Island’s debate about the Cranston banner echoes conflicts about religion and politics that are occurring across the country. While these controversies are easily presented as juxtaposing believers and non-believers, sincere religious people and atheists are found on both sides of these disputes. In Rhode Island, as well as in other parts of the nation, our public discourse is cheapened every time our language implies that debates over religion’s public role occur only between Republicans and Democrats or between the religious and the non-religious.

Despite Frank Lombardi’s claim to the contrary, to “believe in God” doesn’t necessitate defending prayer banners in a public school auditorium. In this respect, Roger Williams remains a powerful reminder that to be deeply religious is not, or at least should not, be synonymous with the need to hang our faith commitments on the walls of our communal, and pluralistic, public square. 

Thomas A. Lewis is an associate professor of Religious Studies at Brown University.