Jessica Ahlquist Totally Was the Bad Guy

There is a large, angry mob in Cranston, Rhode Island (and I imagine this mob extends across the United States) who believes Jessica Ahlquist, a shy, overly compassionate high school student is the bad guy.  This boggles my mind.

She saw the prayer banner and did not run immediately to the ACLU.  Instead, she informed the administration that the banner marginalized atheists and was illegal.  They continued to break the law.

The ACLU sent a letter to the school telling them that the banner was illegal and informing the administration that this was an open and shut case.  They did not open with a lawsuit, but they did ask the administrators to stop breaking the law.  The administrators declined.

The lawsuit was then organized and the administrators held a meeting to decide if they wanted to fight it out in court.  Jessica went to that meeting, was harassed by the adults in her community in doing so, and begged the school not to piss away educational dollars fighting a losing battle.  She didn’t want to fight, she just wanted the law to be observed.  They didn’t listen.

The mobs inside the school and outside the school were quick to call Jessica immoral as they bullied and harassed her.  One day she had to be taken out of school early due to other students threatening violence, presumably because Jessica was the immoral one.

The shrieks from the community came instantly: “This immoral girl is willing to eat away at educational dollars to destroy our tradition!”  The presumably moral ones, of course, were the people who valued tradition over the law and over concern for the well-being of marginalized students.  Second, the presumably moral ones were the people using the future education of the students in their charge as an aegis so they could continue to break the law.  Somehow Jessica was the bad guy.

The presumably moral ones said the banner was not religious.  They said it was secular and merely a matter of tradition.  They lied and it was obvious.  In his decision yesterday, the judge wrote:

While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction. The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular.

They lied so they could continue to break the law, absent any concern for whether or not it made one group of students feel like second-class citizens.  They did this to honor their religion which, we are told, is necessary for morality/compassion.  Whereas Jessica never did anything in the case but tell the truth.  And somehow Jessica was the bad guy.

And now the judgment has come down: the school was breaking the law.  They were warned of this, told they couldn’t win, begged not to throw money away on a losing case in favor of a banner that elevated religious students over non-religious students.  They fought, and now they have been told by the court to stop breaking the law.  And somehow the lawbreakers are the good guys and Jessica is the bad guy.

Last night, in the comment section of the Providence Journal article on the decision, one of the good guys left Jessica’s home address in the comments so other good guys could go make her life miserable (as well as the lives of her sick mother and younger siblings).  Their was no rebuke of the administrators’ law-breaking, but there was an implicit call for harassment (or worse) from those who were willing.  And over the course of this ordeal we’ve learned there were a lot of good Christians who were willing.  And somehow Jessica is the bad guy.

Don’t ask these people to take the mote out of their own eye – they can’t tell the difference between a mote and a virtue.  The moral ones, apparently, were the ones who lied, they were the ones who bullied rather than banking on winning on the merit of their case alone.  They were the ones whose religion apparently permitted breaking the law while either allowing or encouraging harassing a sixteen year-old girl.  They are the ones who can’t tell that they were the bad guys all along.

And most of them still are, but I’ll bet they’ll suffocate telling you how forgiven they are (if they thought for a moment they even needed forgiveness for breaking the law or bullying a young girl).  But forgiveness is worthless if it isn’t preceded by accountability.  I don’t forgive them because they do not demonstrate anything close to resembling remorse.  They don’t deserve forgiveness.  They may find it in the shell of empty fables for which they were willing to become villains, but they will get none from me.

I know where the hero was for the last year and a half.  Frankly, so did the judge.

Plaintiff is clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community.

I suspect the rebuke will do little to alter the minds or to augment the compassion of the presumably moral ones, but at least it’s some well-deserved gratitude for the student who stayed calm, told the truth, and patiently endured a community of students and adults, most of which were happy to break the law and bully in pursuit of Christian virtue.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Elf Eye

    At the third link in the story above, “the judgment has come down,” there is a poll on the separation of church and state that could be pharyngulated.

    • Matt Penfold

      It already looked pretty pharyngulated to me. It is currently 71.8% in favour of more separation of Church and State in Rhode Island. It is not a brilliantly worded question, and judging by some of the comments there are a good number of people in R.I who are a sandwich short of a picnic, so it is possible some people got confused, and vote more thinking they were voting for more Church.

  • hoverfrog

    The judges comment “no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction” is really good. Lets see it applied to others things like God on money and God in the national motto.

    • Ben Crockett


  • Douglas Kirk

    Open and shut cases like this are why I think the legal fees that come from a school administration who doesn’t respond to threats of litigation concerning first amendment violations should come straight out of the pockets of the administrators and board members if (when) the school loses.

    It’s easy to take a stand when you’re not risking anything. Just like it’s apparently easy for an established adult to bully and threaten a high school student. That should be remedied.

    • Matt Penfold

      In the UK, it is possible in cases involving local Government (but not national) for the elected officials who make a decision that is so obviously illegal that no one in good faith could think it otherwise to be held personally liable. They can be held liable not only for any court costs, but also for other costs as well.

      It does not happen very often, but in one famous case a council leader of Westminster Council was found guilty, and was held liable for millions. She ran away to Israel to avoid having to pay.

      • Douglas Kirk

        We need to import some of that civilization to our barbarian kingdoms.

      • Emrysmyrddin

        Was that Dame Shirley, by any chance, Matt? ;)

        • Matt Penfold

          Might have been!

  • Gayle Jordan

    Reposting! Excellent.

  • Kevin

    Excellent post. Deserving of much wider dissemination.

  • Art Vandelay

    I live in Rhode Island just a town over from Jessica and reading that comment section terrifies me. I got daughters too. It’s a weird state…all liberal Catholics. Call it the Kennedy complex. I’ve always found it to be a little hypocritical to for instance support abortion rights politically but then have no problem whatsoever filling the coffers of an institution which has been trying to suppress them for years.

    Anyway, the judge acts like this is a no-brainer but why did he take 3 months to decide? He shouldn’t have done that. All he did was make the sheeple think that it was a harder decision and that maybe he was conflicted over it. I don’t think he did Jessica any favors there.

    • Matt Penfold

      I imagine the decision was made pretty quickly, since the law is clear on the issue.

      What I suspect took the time was the drafting of the ruling. With that, and with Christmas coming between the date of the hearing and the ruling being released it does not seem that unreasonable.

      • Art Vandelay

        I have a hard time giving him the benefit of the doubt when he didn’t even do any research going into it. I mean he dragged the whole court room down to the school so that he could see the banner. How is it possible that he hadn’t seen the banner yet?

        • Matt Penfold

          Maybe he did not attend that school ? Or did so before the prayer was put up ?

          What evidence do you have he had seen the prayer for himself prior to the hearing ?

          • Art Vandelay

            Bad use of words. This was a highly publicized case. I’m shocked that any judge would just go into it without even looking at a picture of the banner. It seems like that would have been all you needed to do. From there just walk in, bang the gavel, and laugh it out of the court room.

            I know…you’re laughing at my primitive understanding of how our legal system works. I’m just saying…that would have been awesome.

  • Really???

    I saw this post from a friend and thought I would check it out. This reminds me of a South Park episode where the kids were trying to have a X-mas play and everyone was so hyper sensitive and offended by every minor religious reference that in the play ended up just being the kids standing on stage for 30 mins in black out fits. I am not a Christian by any means; but really?? I bet this would be a different story if it were a muslim, hindu or some other religion’s banner and how the school needs to celebrate diversity and allow the banner to be hung.

    • Heather

      The Constitution’s “Separation of Church and State” means that no government institution can openly support one religion over another. Considering they have a prayer on the wall, they are supporting religion over the protected status of non-religion. It doesn’t matter if it’s “secular,” it’s still promoting a system of belief over another.

  • Randal

    Let me say I do not think this is right, but I have a feeling this is what christians are going to come back with, and something we should think about. So allow me to illustrate a parallel (and then I will differentiate how I don’t think it applies here). When Prop 8 was up for a vote in CA, opponents of Prop 8 did go through the paper work to find and publish the names and addresses of contributors to the (deeply wrong) proposition. At the time, those contributors wanted to alter disclosure laws so they could remain anonymous. I do think it’s vastly different for an adult contributing large amounts of money to a campaign to be “outed” vs. invading the privacy of a minor who came to the front and put a face on a legitimate complaint. I think it’s reprehensible that the forces arrayed against a minor should invade her privacy. We do, though, have to be careful not to become guilty of the same things we condemn in others. I think it is important to identify the individuals whose “morality” causes them to behave in ways we disagree with, and enable us to boycott them and speak out against them should we so choose, but I feel it’s dangerous to bring the battle to their physical doorstep, just as the angry mob threaten to do to Ms. Ahlquist. Not, realistically, that it matters much anymore, since Citizens United means now we’ll never know where election money comes from anymore!

  • Mark Russell

    Religion is a hate crime.

    • astrochicky

      You got that right!

  • MikeFromDetroit

    Such courage is truly inspirational. But father, the emperor has no clothes!

  • Freemage

    Actually, that would’ve been grounds for appeal. Judges are generally supposed to confine their rulings to the arguments and evidence actually presented. Part of this is so that the evidence is all in record. (This is a bit more fluid the further up the appeals chain you go, mind you.) At the trial level, especially, a judge with prior knowledge or relationship would be expected to set that aside, or recuse himself.

  • Casimir

    When’s the last time you heard about sectarian Muslims trying to hang a prayer banner in a public school?

  • Casimir


    When’s the last time you heard about sectarian Muslims trying to hang a prayer banner in a public school?

  • CC

    Um, no. Muslims themselves can’t avoid harassment. A mural of a Muslim prayer? That would quickly be vandalized into oblivion.

    This suit wasn’t nitpicking. Unless the nit was the size of a horse. This was a very prominent endorsement of a religion in a public school. It was unconstitutional. The school administrators knew it was unconstitutional. If they had a lawyer that was worth his salt, they were undoubtedly informed that they would lose. But still they threw away the taxpayers money on the suit.

  • CC

    The above was meant to be a reply to #7, but for some reason the reply feature didn’t work for me.

  • Art Vandelay

    Okay, I just got around to reading that ruling. I’m wrong. Dead wrong. That was awesome and I can see why it took so long.

  • Ani Sharmin

    While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction.

    This, exactly.

    @Really??? (#7): What CC wrote at #14. It always baffles me when people say stuff like “[Insert minority group here] would be allowed to do this”. No, they wouldn’t. They’d more likely be discriminated against. Do you really think a minority religion would get such preferential treatment? A significant percentage of the Christian majority in the US freaks out if anyone even promotes equal rights. An example of “diversity” would be teaching about various world religions (say, in a history course) — but people freak out if that’s done objectively, because they want their kids to learn that their religion is special.

  • SallyStrange (Bigger on the Inside), Spawn of Cthulhu

    In other words, Christians are the only truly oppressed minority in America?


    Take your obvious lies elsewhere.

  • Aquaria

    I’m sure the judge went personally because it helps to look at the banner in its environment, how far away it can be seen, at what angles, and so on, with his own eyes.

    Only a fucking moron wouldn’t find that beneficial.

  • Aquaria

    If they had a lawyer that was worth his salt, they were undoubtedly informed that they would lose. But still they threw away the taxpayers money on the suit.

    It may turn out that the school’s lawyers advised not going to court, like with the Dover trial, and then the school is up the creek. Most schools have insurance to cover the expenses of a losing lawsuit and any settlement(s) associated with it; however, if the lawyer advised taking down the banner because they would lose in court, then the insurance company will not pay out, because the school went against the advice of their legal counsel.

    I don’t think we’ll know yet if that’s the case of not. If the lawyer told them they could win it, he’s a fucking hack.

  • Aquaria

    Let me say I do not think this is right

    Then you’re not thinking. The judge ruled correctly and in accordance with the First Amendment, along with a slew of other, similar cases.

    Schools can’t push a particular scumbag religion. Period. Do you understand the Establishment Clause–at all?

    but I have a feeling this is what christians are going to come back with, and something we should think about.

    They have nothing to come back with. Absolutely nothing. Their lawyers are already telling them that they will get creamed if they appeal. This is why the school isn’t fighting the case, dumbass.

    The ruling is airtight, and it will hold. The idiotic banner will come down, and it will stay down, as it should.

  • crowepps

    Judges have to enter all the evidence that pertains to a case DURING the case. They can’t say, ‘I know all about that because last year in another trial we had an expert explain all about it.’ If the case is appealed to a higher court, the entire court file, the transcript, all the evidence is sent up so the Appeals Court judges can take a look at it. Anything the Judge didn’t waste time on because he knew about it ahead of time wouldn’t be in the file and wouldn’t be considered evidence.

    Having the technician from the crime lab come in and explain the same thing over and over again might seem to be a big waste of everybody’s time, but there are important reasons why it must be done.

    In addition to that, likely this was not the only case that the Judge had to work on. Decisions on criminal cases where people’s freedom is involved are more urgent and always are done first, and work on civil cases is fitted in where time allows.

  •!/groups/logicandreason/ BiiigT

    Simply excellent article. Zombie-worshippers, take note!

  • Markita Lynda—-Happy New Year, everyone!

    The point of learning who was funding the fight was so that people in favor of marriage equality could patronize other businesses. Jessica Alquist is a person and publicizing her address was accompanied by calls to harass her and threats of violence. There is no equivalence–your argument fails.

  • Randal

    @Aquaria: I’m sorry, I don’t think you understood me (and I can understand the vitriol if I was saying what you thought I was saying, although “dumbass” may be a bit harsh). What I meant was that I do not agree with outing Ms. Ahlquist’s address. The ruling I agree with completely, and I revel in the actual wording of the ruling, the judge was right on, and it’s a beautiful written judgment. I know legally the christians don’t have a leg to stand on. I think it’s ridiculous that it actually had to go to court, because that meant they didn’t understand what they were teaching (presumably) in their civics courses. What I meant was that they would dredge up things like publishing names and addresses during the Prop 8 fight and hold that as an example of us calling the kettle black.

    @Markita: If that was the extent of it I would understand that and my argument would fail. But in that case, they had googlemaps with addresses of private contributors marked. That, in my opinion, is irresponsible. I don’t think it’s as irresponsible as the way Ms. Ahlquist was treated, but in my opinion it’s irresponsible nonetheless.

  • Scott Smith

    Way to go Jessica. In addition to upholding church/state separation, you’ve revealed these violent, shameful cherry picking worshippers to be the vile snakes they are.

  • KMarsh

    And let’s not forget the Pledge, the most egregious violation of the Establishment Clause thus far.

  • KMarsh

    Uh, 3 months is a ridiculously fast decision especially one with such strong Constitutional overtones.

  • Jafafa Hots

    I bet this would be a different story if it were a muslim, hindu or some other religion’s banner and how the school needs to celebrate diversity and allow the banner to be hung.

    I’d advise you not to take up gambling. You’ll lose your shirt.

  • anon

    I think what a lot of people are angry about, myself included, is that this one girl had to cause all this trouble She tries to paint herself as a victim and a person who stands up for people’s rights. Guess what, She has a website where she blogs and trashes Christians. There are good and bad Christians(I’m sure we can name many in the GOP) and good and bad atheists. Guess where she falls? So all Christians are haters but atheists who hate on Christians are a beacon of light? I don’t think so. Whatever you want to believe in, fine. It’s your right. But it’s wrong to push your beliefs OR ridicule those who have certain beliefs. And this is what Jessica has done. My husband’s cousin is an atheist and even SHE disagrees with what this girl did. There have/will be atheist students at West, why didn’t more than one file a lawsuit? Sounds like she’s just a troublemaker looking for attention.

    • Randy R

      Wow! your husband’s cousin is a atheist!? I guess you know what you’re talking about, since you actually know an atheist!

  • anon

    @Aquaria…you’re a twat. Do you know about the banner, have you read, do you go the school/were you a student, do you even live in the city or state? I do. You’re an ass for saying “scumbag” religion. You’re a scumbag. Guess what, you just put yourself in the same group as asses like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum. Stop hating and get a life you poor excuse for a wannabe goth chick.

  • Randal

    @anon, you’re missing the point on so many levels. First, she can blog about what she wants… that’s her free speech. If you don’t want to read what she has written, fine, but she’s merely availing herself of one of her rights as a citizen. She had perfect standing to challenge posting a religious banner in a public school, which is another of her rights as a citizen. The fact that more didn’t join her probably has to do with the way she has been threatened, bullied, and harassed because of her stand. The fact that she’s a troublemaker puts her in good company. So was Rosa Parks. So was MLK. So were our founding fathers. The main point here, though, is that Ms. Ahlquist availed herself of proper legal methods to accomplish what she did. Now she’s being illegally harassed because of it, to the point of having her home address posted on an open forum, a move that invites violent retribution. Unfortunately, at first I thought you were wanting to engage in thoughtful discussion, until you unloaded personal attacks towards another commenter, while keeping yourself anonymous. The fact that you resort to sexist name-calling pretty much pegs your boorish attitude. It’s also quite hypocritical to say, “But it’s wrong to push your beliefs OR ridicule those who have certain beliefs” and then call someone a “twat” and a “poor excuse for a wannabe goth chick” for making a comment you don’t agree with.

  • Efogoto

    @31 anon:

    No one needs to have been a student at the school or live in Cranston to know that the banner was blatantly unconstitutional. The rest of your rant reflects very poorly on you as well. Using sexist language to denigrate Aquaria says nothing about her but speaks volumes about you.

  • NoxiousNan

    #30 Anon said: I think what a lot of people are angry about, myself included, is that this one girl had to cause all this trouble She tries to paint herself as a victim and a person who stands up for people’s rights.

    That’s some twisted thinking. Considering she finally did what should have been done by any number of people in the last 50 years, I think your anger is misplaced.