Sunday, August 26, 2012

Portsmouth Citizen Questions Ahlquist's Award at Touro

From the Newport Daily News Aug 25-26, 2012, page A-8:

Touro's honor for atheist student was puzzling


"Unfortunately, the First Amendment has been broadly interpreted to somehow give the state the right to drive out any outward expression of one's religion."

It was with sincere dismay that I read the lead story in the Aug. 20 Newport Daily News, relating the events surrounding the annual reading of President George Washington’s letter of 1790. This letter, which was written before the Bill of Rights had been established, is a historic masterpiece that includes the famous words, “For happily the Gov. of the U.S. which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” gave comfort to the Newport Jewish community that, like all other religions in America, they were free in the full practice and expression of their faith.

With that in mind, it was puzzling and disappointing that this historic occasion was used in part for the presentation of an award to Jessica Ahlquist, the young student litigant in a suit against the Cranston School Department pursuing the ultimate removal of a banner of long standing given to Cranston West High School by a graduating class many years ago. The suit supported by Ms. Ahlquist and atheist groups, and sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, sought the removal of the banner which contained a list of good citizenship goals and was preceded by the offending words “Heavenly Father help us to,” which speaks to no particular religion, but applies to all religions in one form or another.

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion, free from government interference. Unfortunately the First Amendment has been broadly interpreted to somehow give the state the right to drive out any outward expression of one’s religion. The lawsuits continue across the country even to the extent of asking for the removal of a cross on top of a hill at a Marine base in California, erected to honor of some of their fallen comrades in Afghanistan, and the move to eliminate the religious identity of other fallen heroes from shrines and monuments erected in their honor: These men died defending all the assurances encompassed in the Washington letter and the First Amendment. Religious freedom applies to all. If Touro Synagogue Foundation Chairman Andrew Teitz wanted to honor Ms. Ahlquist, he is of course free to do so, but this thoughtless presentation should not have been shrouded in an important historical event.

Kathleen M. Melvin

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