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.

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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.


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