Skepticon 5 Day Two – Jessica Ahlquist!

I spent much of the morning working on my presentation for Sunday, but I had to make it into the hall for Jessica Ahlquist. Jessica needs no introduction: she’s the scrappy high school atheist who objected to a prayer banner at her school and was ostracized and bullied for it until she finally had to change schools. She finally prevailed in her case against the school, getting the banner taken down against opposition from many at her school and in her community.

What people may not know about Jessica is how long she fought the fight – the lawsuit alone took 9 months – and with what integrity and charm she fought it. Simply put, Jessica is a great spokesperson for secularism: funny, self-deprecating, smart, articulate, passionate, and personable.

Her presentation today related her story, showing the extraordinary prejudice she faced from ignorant people in her fight to protect secular values, speaking of how she feared physical violence against her, how the state’s flower shops refused to deliver a bouquet to her, how she was called an “Evil Little Thing” by a State Representative, and the failure of the school administration to adequately protect her from the actions of her schoolmates.

Particularly powerful was the video of the school-board’s open meeting in which they decided whether or not to appeal the decision to remove the banner. The heat of the opposition to secularism on display was truly disturbing: I can attest, having attended the meeting, that there was a lot of aggression and anger on display, along with a lot of misunderstanding regarding the nature and importance of secular government.

Jessica’s story reminds us all that the fight against theocracy continues, and that public knowledge of the importance of secularism is often extremely low. We’re lucky to have young activists like her, and I can’t wait to see what she does in the future.

About James Croft

Dr. James Croft is the Outreach Director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and completed his Ed.D at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.