On January 11, 2012, a federal judge ordered the removal of a “School Prayer” banner at Cranston High School West in Cranston, Rhode Island, saying that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Ahlquist—then a 16-year-old student at Cranston High School West—was a plaintiff in Ahlquist v. Cranston and effectively became its public face, appearing on CNN and in the New York Times.
Ahlquist’s involvement in the lawsuit made her the target of a massive backlash—local florists refused to deliver flowers to her, hate mail poured in and Ahlquist needed police escorts, and Rhode Island State Representative Peter G. Palumbo (from Cranston) called her “an evil little thing” in a radio interview. The outcry against Ahlquist would have been a lot for anyone to handle, let alone a high school student.
But Ahlquist stood her ground and emerged as a prominent activist for the separation of church and state, and to this day she continues to have a large number of supporters. Her work has been recognized by many activists and organizations, including the American Humanist Association, who gave her their 2012 Humanist Pioneer Award, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who named her their Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist awardee in 2011. She also received the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in 2013.
Two years after her legal victory, Ahlquist’s life has changed immensely. To coincide with the anniversary of the Ahlquist v. Cranston ruling, I spoke with the now 18-year-old Ahlquist about how she feels about the lawsuit, the backlash, activism, religious allies, what she is doing now, the advice she would give to other young activists, what she would say to Rep. Palumbo today, and much more. Below is our extended interview.