Jessica Ahlquist Featured in the New York Times

The New York TimesAbby Goodnough has a summary of Jessica Ahlquist‘s lawsuit in Friday’s paper and Jessica comes out of it looking exactly like the hero she is. (Her opponents, not so much.)

Atheists don’t always get positive coverage in the media, so it’s an encouraging sign, especially after everything Jessica’s been going through:

Jessica Ahlquist (Gretchen Ertl - The New York Times)

She is 16, the daughter of a firefighter and a nurse, a self-proclaimed nerd who loves Harry Potter and Facebook. But Jessica Ahlquist is also an outspoken atheist who has incensed this heavily Roman Catholic city with a successful lawsuit to get a prayer removed from the wall of her high school auditorium, where it has hung for 49 years.

Brittany Lanni, who graduated from Cranston West in 2009, said that no one had ever been forced to recite the prayer and called Jessica “an idiot.”

“If you don’t believe in that,” she said, “take all the money out of your pocket, because every dollar bill says, ‘In God We Trust.’ ”

Compare that ignorant soundbyte to Jessica’s pitch-perfect line at the end of the story:

Does [Jessica] empathize in any way with members of her community who want the prayer to stay?

“I’ve never been asked this before,” she said. A pause, and then: “It’s almost like making a child get a shot even though they don’t want to. It’s for their own good. I feel like they might see it as a very negative thing right now, but I’m defending their Constitution, too.”

What a great analogy.

I’ve been asked a few times over the past couple of weeks if I’m surprised at the amount of money people are donating toward her scholarship fund.

My response has been the same: I’m not surprised at all. Of course people want to chip in to her future success. Jessica embodies our movement at its best — she’s brave, she defends the separation of church and state, she’s eloquent when speaking about the lawsuit and her beliefs, and she’s not letting the religious majority in her community keep her down.

This article just reinforces everything we already knew about her.

***Update***: There’s some misinformation being spread about Jessica possibly transferring schools. Jessica has denied this rumor, so please stop perpetuating it:



About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Bluebury

    Reading through the article I found this gem:
    “Many alumni this week said they did not remember the prayer from their high school days but felt an attachment to it nonetheless.”

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, I usually don’t remember thing that are important to me.

    • Anonymous

      And yet one of the rabbis at yesterday’s press conference said that people of her congregation who had gone to Cranston West did remember feeling uncomfortable about it, but felt wary about rocking the boat and didn’t complain. Funny that, eh?

    • Anonymous

      Well, if they’re that attached to it – the old banner isn’t being used now, right? So how about holding a lottery for some alumnus/a to take it home and hug it and pet it and squeeze it and call it George?

  • Keulan

    That was a pretty good article. Jessica Ahlquist came out of it looking good, while the opponents of hers they quoted looked like ignorant morons.

  • Trina

    Nicely-done story; I’m glad to see it.   I admire Jessica greatly, as much for her poise as for addressing the long-standing problem at her school.  I’m very pleased to say that Jessica’s courage pushed me over the edge, finally, and I ‘came out’ as an atheist on FB tonight.  It’s something I’ve wanted to do, but was also fearful about, for a long time.  I have depression and anxiety disorder and really don’t need any additional negativity in my life.  I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get, but have had wonderfully supportive comments.  (I did say that anyone who didn’t like it could unfriend me lol)

    • Anonymous

      Congrats Trina!   It’s great to see Jessica’s poise, intelligence, composure and bravery inspire such actions :)   I’m smiling thinking of all the little acts of ‘consciousness-raising’ her story is inspiring :)

    • Annie

      I just read your post twice, and I’m still smiling.  Congratulations, Trina!  Wishing you smooth sailing.

    • Anonymous

      Good girl. I am bipolar and suffer PTSD. Do not be ashamed of things you have no control over. Whether it is your illness or your Atheism. I would be proud to be your friend on face book. As I would be almost all that post here. Timmy Carnes is my name if you care to invite me. Good luck and hang on.

  • http://twitter.com/edetsant Peter Löfgren

    I agree that the analogy is good, but in the mindset of a christian it can be used to defend that prayer on the wall. A christian would argue that is for the readers own good, and they would truly believe that. Difference here is of course defending something existing (such as the Constitution or a shot that has a proven effect) versus someones made up belief.

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Rev. Ouabache

    “If you don’t believe in that,” she said, “take all the money out of your pocket, because every dollar bill says, ‘In God We Trust.’ ”

    The fact that so many of them think that this is a valid argument is further proof that “In God We Trust” needs to be off of our money.

    Also, who really uses cash anymore? Honestly!

    • Anonymous

      I was going to write the same thing, it’s just like when people say “Well, evolution hasn’t been proven, it’s only a theory!”

      Just a play on words, a quick soundbite that seems rational to people who hold that view or have limited intelligence but utterly moronic to anyone else.

    • http://twitter.com/_mikeweber Mike Weber

      Regardless, I mostly use check cards and credit cards when I buy stuff anyway. It’s godless money :)

    • Anonymous

      It seems to me that all these statements (and almost every nutcase who’s made an internet comment against the judge’s decision or been quoted in the media has referred to the money thing) could be used the next time the motto is challenged in court. It makes it clear that people do see it as a government endorsement of their religion.

  • Anonymous

    Some members said it was an important piece of the school’s history; others said it reflected secular values they held dear.

    “The prayer banner espouses nothing more than those values which we all
    hope for our children, no matter what school they attend or which
    religious background they hail from.”

    Yes, because nothing says “secular” and reflects neutrality on religious background quite like opening with “Our Heavenly Father” and closing with “Amen”.

    Sometimes I wonder whether these people are being dishonest when they claim to see nothing sectarian about these sorts of things (this banner, “In God we Trust” etc.), or whether they are so deeply embedded in their bubble of religious privilege that they are being sincere and simply don’t see the sectarian nature of the prayer (or the fact that prayer is non-neutral by definition).

    Of course, I’m sure that not a single one of the people claiming that there’s no religious intention behind the prayer, or that it’s entirely neutral, would feel the same way if the prayer opened with “Allahu Akbar”and closed with “Assalamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuh”. Still, religion trains you to have a remarkable capacity for cognitive dissonance, so it could be that even as they’d react differently to a Muslim version, they’d still insist that their obviously Christian one was “neutral”.

    • Wintermute

      And of course, if you go back to any of the school board meetings where the prayer was discussed, most of the defenses offered are not “but it’s secular, and those are decent values!” but rather “We need to stand up for that omnipotent, omniscient being who created the universe but is somehow threatened by a 16 year old.” Any talk of the banner being secular is a smokescreen–one that’s only particularly effective if you’re already inclined to believe it.

    • Christoph Burschka

      That is what is so insidious about it. “Our heavenly father, thank you for cute puppies, amen.” What, you’re against putting this prayer in school? You puppy-hating monster!
      And on the other hand, just dare suggest to remove the religious parts and leave it as “Puppies are cute”. That’s when they go ballistic.

    • kenneth

      They know full well what they are doing. Not a one of them truly believes that public prayer or displays of sectarian symbols are secular in any way. They’re just smart enough to know that they have to perform such mental acrobatics to have a chance of blowing their argument past judges. Fortunately, judges are not usually stupid enough to fall for it. 

  • Anonymous

    “Pat McAssey, a senior who is
    president of the student council, said the threats were “completely
    inexcusable” but added that Jessica had upset some of her classmates by
    mocking religion online.”

    As far as I can tell, Jessica is fairly neutral toward religion and religious people, I haven’t seen her mock them in any way.  Every statement I’ve seen from her was entirely respectful to the other side.  I think this guy is making a statement to make himself, and his peers, look good then goes on to spread negative misinformation.

  • Wintermute

    Jessica is a big damn hero, and I can think of no more fitting end to this than for her to walk across that stage on graduation day with her head held high, knowing she did the right thing, and also knowing that she’s free to move on to places where the people’s heads are a bit less firmly up their asses.

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    I have to admit that I did not know that Jessica was not the one who started this.  The article says a parent, who remains anonymous, called them in.  The ACLU picked Jessica because she was outspoken at meetings discussing the incident, and because she had standing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RadarLoveLizard Darrell Bartlett

    “Pat McAssey, a senior who is president of the student council, said the threats were “completely inexcusable” but added that Jessica had upset some of her classmates by mocking religion online.”

    Call something completely inexcusable, and then proceed to go ahead and make excuses for it anyways.  Student council FTW!

  • Mairianna

    After reading Jessica’s answer to the question about those who want the prayer to stay,  I realized I HAD to give to her scholarship fund.  To be so enlightened at such a young age is an amazing gift (but not from god).  When I see the ignorant comments from some people about her actions,  I picture a wounded animal attacking someone who is trying to help it.  Animal instinct.  It’s scary to think so many people can only react out of instinct.  I added a comment in my donation to tell Hemant that this, by far,  was the BEST money I have ever spent! 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HUHIP23UNZBYV737J7HU4Y2Z4Q GetReal

    If the prayer banner has been hanging on the wall of her high school auditorium for 49 years, why hasn’t it been opposed before now?

    • Erpease

      Because no one was willing to face the backlash until now.

      Rabbi Amy Levin, vice president of the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis,
      said she has spoken with former Cranston West students who felt
      uncomfortable with the banner when it was put up in their school nearly
      50 years ago. She said the families and individuals she talked with were
      afraid to make their stance known during an era of such religious
      fortitude.

      “Jessica, 50 years later, managed to give voice to their discomfort,” said Levin.

      http://warwickonline.com/stories/Faith-leaders-urge-compassion-kindness-towards-Ahlquist,67156?print=1

  • http://twitter.com/_mikeweber Mike Weber

    “When I grow up, I want to be just like her!” says the 27 year old

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_POBNPRAX3ZQKUBJF3XAG3WLI4A Tracy

      “Me too!” says the 37 year old.

  • Lina

    Her response to the question may seem air-tight to atheists, but in reality it’s full of holes. The Christians feel that putting God and prayer in every possible place is YOUR “shot in the arm” and “for your own good”. Sadly this argument only ends up in more circular logic.

  • PegK

    There is a poll currently on MSN.com on whether or not the banner was constitutional.  That should not be decided by a vote and right now the vote is very bad.  Our community needs to change those numbers around.

    • kenneth

      Screw those poll numbers. The whole point of the Judicial branch and Judicial Review is that some principals in law are so important to our country’s purpose that they are not subject to popularity contests.  Segregated schools and housing polled well too at one time. Fortunately, the Court was unimpressed by that. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/ed.selby Ed Selby

    Like Tycha, I was unaware that Jessica didn’t “start it”. It would be quite adult of the anonymous adult who started this to come forward!

  • Rt

    “If you don’t believe in that,” she said, “take all the money out of your pocket, because every dollar bill says, ‘In God We Trust.’ ”

    BUZZZZT, literally wrong, there is actually plenty of old “no motto” bills still in circulation, you can buy some on e-bay. (a “no motto” one dollar bill will set you back between $2,00 and 2,99 which shows that these are not a particularly rare items)

    They date back to 1955 when some congressmen with nothing better to do would rather do something trivial and pointless posturing and money designing rather than, say, deal with the economy or the cold war…

  • Anonymous

    What a well written article.  Nothing that stands out as negative or in favor of one side or the other.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder where the R.I. Catholic outrage was when their pedophile priests were exposed? Any death threats against them? Any vigils or protests? Any churches shut down?

    • http://twitter.com/notlobau John

      Yes! I was thinking exactly the same thing .

      The RCC tried shut the pedophile scandal down by any means possible, ie paying off victims and making them sign no disclosure provisions etc.
      Then along comes Jessica Ahlquist, all she wants to do is remove a religious banner from a taxpayer funded school, a blatant violation of the Constitution.
      What followed was a perfect demonstration bigotry ignorance and hatred toward this young woman.
      Jessica if you are next generation of leaders I look forward to the future.

  • Roseyposeyclark
  • kenneth

    If I was Jessica’s PR man in this episode, I would have avoided the whole analogy of “shot in the arm” or doing something for someone’s own good. What she SHOULD have said is that she was upholding an ancient tradition of church state separation, and one which USED to be defended and appreciated by devout Christians themselves.  Lots of people give the credit/blame for separation doctrine to atheists. That is, in fact, a VERY recent phenomenon. The concept was first advocated, and written into the Constitution, by no less than Baptists, who knew the downside of being an minority religion and had advocated separation in England as early as the 1600s!  More than a few devout Christians even today believe in church state separation, if for no other reason than because they understand that government entanglement in religion inevitably cheapens the religion itself. 

  • kenneth

    By the by, if anyone wants to read the text of the ruling itself, here it is. I’m a big believer in primary sources. An awful lot of online controversies burn a lot of keystrokes over rumors and suppositions about what was actually done or said.

    http://tinyurl.com/7xdvztz

  • Vasile

    This Bimbo has no idea about atheism. She is a spoil girl. I am from Romania, a former atheist country. I know from experience what bad is atheism. When you remove God, you have nothing, just brutal men to lead you with no fear or respect. I am happy my country return to Christianity and we can see this all over. So, little girl, read the Bible and be famous with God, not without, because He will be forever. You are temporary. USA will fall down without GOD. That was happened in Estern Europe in in 1944. And a big plague come to our countries.  

  • Patrick B

    What strikes about this article is Jessica’s incredible arrogance and lack of respect for other people’s beliefs.  When she said “the prayer was an affront” I was appalled. Does she really believe that a prayer written in 1963, which encourages honesty, friendship and fair play is offensive to her?

    This is typical of the “ME” generation we are raising today, a bunch of spoiled brats who think the world revolves around them. And then she is surprised when people are angry?

    Well Jessica, welcome to the real world. Deal with it! 

    By the way, I’m an atheist too. But unlike Jessica, I respect the rights of people I disagree with.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X