The Pursuit of Justice in Rhode Island

February 3, 2012Rabbi Peter W. Stein

Rhode Island has a significant place in the religious life of the United States. It is home to Touro Synagogue, the first synagogue in America, dedicated in 1763. It is home to the first Baptist church in America as well, begun in 1638. It is home to a number of significant houses of worship, and it is the most Catholic state in the country. Rhode Island also has a significant history in the separation of church and state. Roger Williams, a Baptist minister, came to found Rhode Island after being banished from the colony of Massachusetts and experiencing firsthand the persecution that can exist in a land without religious freedom. While the influence of Roger Williams has carried Rhode Island far in preserving religious liberty, citizens living under this grand tradition have faltered as of late.

Over the last few years, there has been a significant conflict surrounding a prayer banner at one of the local high schools. Cranston, R.I., which is home to my synagogue, Temple Sinai, has two public high schools. When Cranston West opened in the 1960s, it adopted an official school prayer, which hangs on the auditorium wall. The impulse in adopting this prayer, which was composed by a student at the school, was admirable. It is, however, explicitly still a prayer. It begins “Heavenly Father,” and it concludes with “Amen” – and it is titled “School Prayer.” In recent years, objections to the banner were raised, spearheaded by a brave and thoughtful student at the school, Jessica Ahlquist. Jessica, who is an atheist, objected to the presence of an official school prayer in the auditorium. She brought her objections to the administration, to the school committee, and ultimately to the general public through a lawsuit filed with the assistance of the ACLU. At every turn, requests to take down the banner, convert it into a historic museum-style display, or edit the wording were rejected. Earlier this month, the court case was decided – U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux ruled that the banner needed to come down. In the last several weeks, unfortunately, this situation has transformed from a simple dispute over school prayer and the appropriate separation of church and state. Jessica has been subjected to insults and threats, the rhetoric on talk radio and other media outlets has been vicious, and Jessica and her supporters have been vilified. The police have been escorting Jessica to school, local businesses have refused to provide for Jessica and her family, and even a member of the State Assembly was on the air calling Jessica terrible names. It has been a very sad time in our city and state. I have joined together with other religious leaders in the state to offer support for Jessica, and also to advocate that it is appropriate for the banner to come down. Naturally, there has been a lot of support coming from atheist groups and other non-religious people and organizations. It was important to me, as a rabbi and a person of faith, to voice my support. We must take action to defend the separation of church and state. Especially given our Jewish history of religious persecution, that separation is part of what makes me feel safe and secure in this country. We must also take action to demonstrate that Reform Judaism is tolerant, accepting, and able to embrace a wide variety of perspectives. Last week, a group of nearly 20 leaders from different faith traditions, including three rabbis, an imam, and a number of Protestant clergy came together to speak for tolerance and civility in this debate. In my remarks, I said, “This is not about agreement or disagreement on the issue. It’s about how we treat one another. The diversity of our community is an incredible strength. We must act to elevate and protect the freedom of expression that is so central to our community.” I offered the rabbinic teachings about Hillel and Shammai, which show us that we don’t need to shy away from conflict, but we need to conduct disputes in a positive and constructive manner. When we disagree, we must still find ways to respect our opponent and to build up the community. I pray for peace in my state and throughout our country. I celebrate the bravery of this high school student, who raised her voice and took action when she saw something wrong in her school. As a parent and as a rabbi, I hope that all of our young people will live in this way: developing a moral compass and working for the sake of justice, equality, and peace. And when our young people or any person is motivated to take action, may they be supported and respected. Let us cultivate an environment where opinions are expressed freely but respectfully, where those with different viewpoints are respected, and where we celebrate the diversity that makes our community so strong. Rabbi Peter W. Stein is the rabbi at Temple Sinai in Cranston, R.I. Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai.

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