The Battle Over a Public High School’s Prayer Banner Continues…

We’re still awaiting the judge’s ruling on whether Cranston High School West gets to keep its Prayer Banner, but in the meantime, Jessica Ahlquist, the high-schooler who’s leading the charge to take it down, has been talking about the case in a few select venues.

A few months ago, she was awarded the Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A transcript of her speech is finally online:

Jessica (center) accepts her award (image via FFRF)

A lot of irrelevant stuff came up at the [School Committee] meetings. People were talking about abortion and how prayers in schools somehow lowered the teen pregnancy rate. This was all coming from people who didn’t really know that the prayer mural existed before. I spoke at that meeting also and could feel how much people hated me. They stared and glared at me.

They were angry from the very start, and that was reflected at school. After it was on the news, weird things started happening. I would sneeze in class and people would scream, “God bless you!” in my face.

I’m also not lying when I say that the banner is offensive. It’s entitled “School Prayer” and addresses “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen.” They’ve argued that it isn’t a prayer. They’ve argued that it’s historical. They’ve made every claim there is. But one claim that I don’t think they can fairly make is that I’m not offended by it. Because I am and other people are, too. Even Christians are. I have a Muslim friend who is.

They’re trying to keep the prayer in the school simply to push God on people who don’t want it pushed on them, and they’ve succeeded many times. In my school there are atheists who have told me that they disagree with what I’m doing. I’m always a little bit sad when I hear that, because it seems that they just haven’t really thought about it enough.

When I was younger, I didn’t necessarily see religion as something that needed to be fought all the time. But the more research I did, the more I learned that religion can be a big problem. That kind of inspired me to start fighting this prayer.

She’s 16, people. 16.

If Jessica can stand up to her classmates and the adults at her school, there’s no reason some of us should remain closeted as atheists to our most trusted friends (or even a compassionate stranger or two).

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/MrRonda-Mathews/100002819358459 MrRonda Mathews

    She likely has three more years at that school. Brutal. She’ll have to mind her P’s and Q’s for the remainder, everybody else certainly will. Brave, or just incredibly shortsighted, indeed.

    • Scotanthony

      Brave

    • Justin Miyundees

      You missed a good chance to just be quiet, but cheers!  Knocking her accomplishments surely will dampen the courage of the next uppity hero type.  Well said.  But you know what, you may have it backwards on who has to mind their P’s & Q’s because I, for one, have a at least a little disposable income that I’d be happy to dedicate to any legal proceedings Jessica might find worth implementing against students, teachers and school board members should she be further repressed – you know, by shortsighted people.

    • wright

      Brave.

    • Drew M.

      Brave with two generous helpings of Incredibly Fucking Awesome™.

  • Hermann o

    Perhaps this is a very US-american thing?
    I simply do not understand having a “school prayer” and having it displayed!
    I pray when I want, I don´t need the state to get into it!

    OK, I simply don´t understand the whole thing, sorry!
    Just throw it out …

    Hermann – christian

    • wright1

      A US-American here, Hermann. Aside from predominately Muslim countries, perhaps it is something peculiar to my nation.

      As an atheist myself, I think it stems from a largely unrecognized, unspoken position of privilege. The Christians of the US have rarely had to confront serious disagreement with their views, historically.

      In recent decades, as the fundamentalists have failed to get Creationism taught as “science” in public schools and organized religion has declined, the fundies have gotten scared and angry. Then, as atheism has begun to get more notice and traction in the public view, a further wave of reaction has been spawned.

      When someone like Ms. Ahlquist questions and worse, publicly disagrees with that unspoken privilege, the reactionaries come out roaring. They’re a bullying minority, but a very loud one. And they have some resources. Fortunately, they don’t have a lot of courage and often no legal legs to stand on in the fights they pick.

      • Tayglas

        Why are you an atheist?

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelWilt25 Michael Wilt

    I agree with the removal of this as what is required by our separation of church and state but I can’t stand it when atheists/agnostics claim something to be offensive.  Let’s stop playing the “I’m offended” card that theists love to play and just simply state that school prayer and religious banners is unconstitutional. 

    • Justin Miyundees

      Well, I can understand.  I can imagine some could be offended when an educational institution foists delusion on innocent children casting most of them in a mold of blind adherence to religious (make believe) authority.  Some could be offended that religion was a motivator to destroy the greatest stock of knowledge in the civilized world when Christians ransacked and burned the library at Alexandria thereby setting back the advance of science possibly hundreds of years and Hypatia raped and killed for braking a taboo.  Some could be offended that we put a fairytale of creationism on par with the theory of evolution thereby confusing and crippling the next generation of biologists and physicians.  Some could be offended that we might well have cured cancer hundreds of years ago and eliminated fossil fuel use and averted climate change.  And some could be offended by the continued deliberate stupefying of generations of Americans.

    • http://hauntedtimber.wordpress.com/ timberwraith

      When a person or institution engages in discriminatory behavior, one has every right to be offended. The offense comes from knowing that given their druthers, the majority is/will willingly exclude and marginalize a person because they are not a member of the more powerful majority. It is offense with good reason.

      When someone makes gay jokes I’m offended because of the prejudice that is aimed at the group I belong to. The person is indicating that on some level they see my sexual orientation as a source of ridicule and hence, I am viewed as “less than.”

      When someone makes a prejudicial statement about immigrants or African Americans, I am offended because the sentiment revealed by that statement indicates an intent to hurt those who are members of a disfavored ethnic/racial group. I am offended even though I am white and a citizen of the country I live in. I am offended because I dislike seeing people hurt each other.

      So, yes, offense does matter because it quite often is the emotion that is generated in circumstances where a person has indicated that they embrace an attitude or philosophy that brings harm to others. My offense is a natural, healthy response to the specter of harmful attitudes and behaviors.

    • HA2

      Unfortunately, the law doesn’t quite work that way – the person filing the lawsuit has to have “standing”, meaning that they had to have been harmed in some way.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_%28law%29

      ” In the United States, the current doctrine is that a person cannot bring a suit challenging the constitutionality of a law unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the plaintiff is (or will imminently be) harmed by the law.”

      If nobody is offended – or if being offended doesn’t matter – then the banner stays because nobody is harmed by it being there and thus nobody has grounds for a lawsuit. And so on and so forth.

      In my opinion, this is a pretty big problem with the legal system, but I don’t really know the origins of this custom so maybe I’m missing the reason why it’s necessary.

  • Trace

    “I’m always a little bit sad when I hear that, because it seems that they just haven’t really thought about it enough.” …or maybe they have, Jessica, and they disagree with what you are doing all the same.

    • Justin Miyundees

      Right.  Maybe they’ve thought it through so completely that they understand the power that the state gains by promoting religion.  It is, after all, a handy little tool to manipulate the population – a pry bar into the deepest fears and emotions of “constituents”.  Propping up a make believe world in “the hereafter”  and preying on fear of damnation are handy things if only for recruitment of soldiers and reelection campaigns.  It provides and easy mask of righteous morality that teachers and school members can don like so many prophets, preachers and priests – why should they have all the glory?  The authority they gain from this easiest of easy cons (pretending to have a conduit to an almighty) more than outweighs the benefits of being ACTUALLY righteous and fair.  Now, that’s a thoughtful disagreement.  Pffff.  You should go think it through yourself.

      • Rich Wilson

        This isn’t about what Jessica is doing.  This is about how when someone disagrees with us, we try to force them into one of the following three categories:

        The don’t really understand us.
        They’re stupid.
        They’re evil.

        Because we just can’t comprehend any other reason why anybody would disagree with us.

        I’m full on in the Jessica camp, but that doesn’t mean I think all atheists who disagree “haven’t thought it through enough”.

        • Justin Miyundees

          But they should completely be on her side.  This is government being influenced by dogma – it is theocracy if only in seedling form.  

          How do you feel when creationists rebuke Darwin?  Don’t you feel like they haven’t thought it through?  

          Jessica just says “it makes me sad.”  She didn’t call them stupid, she didn’t say they were evil, she didn’t even accuse them of not understanding her.  

          I think you’re projecting here and distilling it to a three sentence red herring.

          I am a teacher – when a student doesn’t get a lesson, I don’t think they’re evil or stupid or they don’t understand me personally.  Clearly they don’t understand the concept though and if the kid never leaves my class and never grasps a particular concept then I’ve failed and that certainly has happened and it is certainly cause for regret.

          Jessica, however doesn’t have a responsibility to teach her adversaries, so she can only be sad at the failings of society.  Be glad she’s not like her adversaries who turn to anger and rage. 

          • Justin Miyundees

            Apologies for the redundant “never” – it’s a typo.

            I’ll add, though, that we tolerate too much intellectual laziness and apathy as atheists and we find ourselves in these predicaments of having to defend the constitution time and time and time again.

          • alphabetsoupofsomething

            This is so well said I have to bookmark this page.

          • Rich Wilson

            How do you feel when creationists rebuke Darwin?  Don’t you feel like they haven’t thought it through? 

            I think that’s an apple to our orange.  There are facts, like 1+1=2 and opinions, like blue is the best color.  I think evolution is extremely close to 1+1=2 and “What Jessica should do about it”, although not at “best color” is at least further towards opinion than fact.

            she didn’t even accuse them of not understanding her

            I think ‘not thinking it through’ is the same thing as ‘not understanding’.  Yes, I know the difference, but in terms of “reasons people don’t agree with me”, they’re the same.

            I get that she’s sad.  That’s valid.  I’m sad too.  But she assumes that the reason they don’t agree is that they just didn’t put the effort into it.  I think that only devalues them and their opinion.

            we tolerate too much intellectual laziness and apathy as atheists

            Perhaps.  The question is what we do about it.  I think Jessica is doing the right thing, and I wish more atheists agreed.  But I think we’re better off accepting that some people will disagree with us on some issues rather than making our own assumptions about why they disagree.

            • Drumlab

              I am all for arguing but not for it’s own sake, which is what it seems you folks are doing. You have no way of actually knowing if the other atheists she is referring to “thought it through” or not. Likewise, you don’t know the extent of the conversations that she has had with them and, therefore, whether she is making a false assumption or if she has more intimate knowledge of their positions and feels informed enough to make the judgement she did. One characteristic of teenagers is that they tend not to be able to consider the long-term implications of their actions. I could imagine a scenario where another atheist student might resent the negative attention that they may be receiving as a result of this battle and disagree with her simply to keep the status quo, not realizing the long-term harm they could be causing.

          • Rich Wilson

            Another difference that occurred to me is that teaching students a concept isn’t an either/or situation.  Either they understand metric or not.  But when it comes to “should the US switch to metric” you’re going to have people who understand the advantages to metric, think us magically being metric would be a good thing, but don’t think the associated costs would be worth it.

            • Justin Miyundees

              I find this splitting hairs tedious.  Jessica is right. 

              If one is capable of abstract thought, this becomes a clear cut case of church and state.  If one can’t pick a side, what’s that say about that person?  If this is a child, okay.  They’re learning so I have patience for that, but an adult?  No.  I’m sorry.  An adult who can’t stand up for a principle is a sorry fool and we’ve suffered them long enough.Feeble milk toasts, intellectual gadflies, lazy slugs, cowards, has beens -whatever the excuse is insufficient and that makes me sad too. Atheists should be standing with her wholeheartedly.  I think it just takes more backbone than people are willing to muster.   There – let’s call that Hitchens’ razor.

  • Erik Cameron

    Jessica is a hero

  • Tim

    Jessica,

    Well done.  Keep fighting these battles.  It is great to see so many smart young women fighting for secularism.  I speak as a not so smart old man

  • Allison

    Is there any way that an online petition could be started to help this girl out?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      At this point, we just have to wait for the judge’s ruling.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1367064733 Debbie Flitman

    What the media continues to forget when reporting on this issue, is that 2 local Rabbis, along with  the Executive Director of the RI Council of Churches came to school committee meetings and said that the CHSW SCHOOL PRAYER is in fact religious in nature (Christian), and should not be there. Why do they forget to report this fact? – I just don’t know. The media also forgets to report on the amount of harassment Jessica has had to endure as result of the Cranston School Dept. not doing the right thing. My favorite Jessica Ahlquist quote:”Knowing I’m right makes it easier. The hate has been cancelled out by enCOURAGEment.” 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anthony-Okafor/1759887752 Anthony Okafor

      Because then it looks worse for atheists (in their minds)

  • Shrubber

    @twitter-374044444:disqus : While I share your concern that atheists not stoop to the level of theists with the “I’m offended” line,  it seems to be taken more seriously than “Because it’s illegal, and unconstitutional.”  Go figure.

  • Anonymous

    That bit about “Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West”?  God’s not doin’ it.

    Maybe they need to pray harder.

  • Ronlawhouston

    Jessica for President!  (Hey, if the school district can ignore the Constitution so can we!)

  • Lew Payne

    How sad that, in the United States of America, we live in a land that where superstition prevails.  I would expect as much from a third-world nation, but not from a tier-one nation like ours.  People still can’t abide by federal law… and choose to introduce superstition into publicly-funded schools and political campaigns, among other things.  I hope that some day we can overcome superstition and replace it with science and personal philosophy, for our own sake.

  • Entalzar60

    Total BS.  Just another Liberal propaganda ploy. I would like to know who’s pawn she is.   She is being used. NO child that age has the forethought she is showing.  She is but a tool being used by others for their own agenda.
    leave it alone. Why now must it be changed?? To fit being Politically correct?  More Liberal Bull shll?  yes , I think so.

    • wright

      I really hope this is a Poe…

      “NO child that age has the forethought she is showing.  She is but a tool being used by others for their own agenda.”

      What a remarkably silly thing to say. Kids her age and younger have and do display as much or more courage and forethought as adults. Get your head out of the sand. And do you actually have any proof of that second, equally silly sentence?

      The prayer is wrong because it isn’t constitutionally correct, being a blatant example of a specific religion given special privilege and endorsement. What part of that don’t you understand?

      • Justin Miyundees

        I doubt it – this person is cut of the same cloth as pro-slavery advocates of the 1800′s.  Why change it?  To be politically correct?  Abolition was “More Liberal Bull shll” too.   What a twat.  I think so.

  • terrymac

    Why aren’t there more atheist home-schoolers? I had many reasons for home-schooling my kids, and encouraging them to continue the practice. Top of the list was that I could do it far better – one of my grand-kids scores in the 99th percentile on standardized math tests, and his siblings are well above par; no school in this country teaches trigonometry, algebra, and computer programming to 9 year olds, but his parents do.

    Even if a government school does not explicitly teach a religion, it invariably teaches that the government itself is a near-deity which may not be questioned. Children are conditioned to give the same reverence toward the government as toward a temple priest – blindly accepting pronouncements about drugs, terrorism, inflation, and other government programs. Viewing politics as a form of competing religious cults helps to explain why so many politicians get away with so many blatant falsehoods for so long. We believe that drugs are bad, and must be punished. We believe that a billion terrorists must be kept at bay by an Omniscient Security State – is this not like the Catholic claims for an Omniscient God Who Sees Everything? Replacing a god with a man is no improvement, if godlike claims are made for that man’s benevolence and powers.

  • MrNineofif

    Unless you have to recite the
    Prayer I don’t get it as its historical legacy of the school when u feel you have to attack anything that has a religious tie then the issue might be with you

    She might want to find out why atheists at her school disagree


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