Saturday, January 28, 2012

Jessica Ahlquist

(borrowed from The Wayward Willis)

I haven't blogged about this before now, because it's everywhere on atheist blogs. What could I say about it that Pharyngula hasn't? I'd feel like a male mosquito, buzzing impotently, not even able to draw blood, next to that huge, lurking PZ Myers beast, with his sharp, glistening fangs. :)

But now it's in the New York Times, so I can't just ignore it. Besides, this is a brave and honest girl. My praise may not be worth much, but she deserves all of the praise she can get.
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.

A federal judge ruled this month that the prayer’s presence at Cranston High School West was unconstitutional, concluding that it violated the principle of government neutrality in religion. In the weeks since, residents have crowded school board meetings to demand an appeal, Jessica has received online threats and the police have escorted her at school, and Cranston, a dense city of 80,000 just south of Providence, has throbbed with raw emotion.

State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show. Three separate florists refused to deliver her roses sent from a national atheist group. The group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights.

“I was amazed,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, which is based in Wisconsin and has given Jessica $13,000 from support and scholarship funds. “We haven’t seen a case like this in a long time, with this level of revilement and ostracism and stigmatizing.”

Crazy, huh? This prayer banner - titled "School Prayer" - starts with "Our Heavenly Father" and ends with "Amen." In a public school. Open and shut case. And that's exactly how the federal judge saw it:
According to the Justice’s decision “The purpose of the prayer banner was clearly religious in nature,” and that “No amount of debate can make the school Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.”

The school board could have avoided all this if they'd removed the prayer when a parent - not Jessica - objected. But no, they wanted to spend tax money in a futile quest to force their own religion on everyone else. I guess Rhode Island is still struggling with this whole religious freedom thing, huh?

And what's been the result? The whole town has gone batshit crazy! State Representative Peter G. Palumbo - a Democrat, no less - called this 16-year-old high school girl an "evil little thing" for standing up for the U.S. Constitution. (Some clever atheists are now selling t-shirts to support Jessica's college fund.)

Cranston florists refused to deliver flowers to Jessica, she'd become such a pariah in the town. And she's even needed police protection in school:
Ahlquist was at the meeting and said she would "definitely" do what she did again, even if she has been getting frightening threats.

"A lot of people are saying that they hope I get beat up," she told [ABC News' affiliate] WLNE. "That they would hurt me physically in school if they could. It is hurtful. It kind of disturbed me. It's mostly hurtful when it comes from students in the school."

Ironically, lawyers for the city and school claimed in the lawsuit that she was acting as a "zealous advocate," not a "frightened student." As PZ Myers put it:
If the prayer were a problem, students would be cowed and fearful, and would not be complaining. A student is complaining, therefore she isn’t fearful, therefore it’s not a problem.

That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

But you know what this is about, right? They can't intimidate Jessica Ahlquist. But they can make it clear to everyone else the penalty they'd pay for rocking the boat. Not everyone is as brave as Jessica. Whenever the Christian Taliban makes it tough for someone who stands up for her rights, they keep everyone else in line.

And Jessica is only 16 years old. She has to live in this town. She has to go to this school. Most of these Christians won't harm her, I'm sure. But they'll do their best to create an environment of fear. And if someone else harms her, oh, well, that's terrible, right? But she should have expected it...

Maybe the next person tempted to stand up for the U.S. Constitution will have second thoughts. That prayer banner wouldn't have remained in the school this long if someone had stood up and objected previously. The law hasn't changed, only the willingness to stand up.

Because rights on paper are worthless if everyone is too cowed to do anything when they're violated. The Soviet Union, too, recognized civil rights,... on paper. But everyone knew what would happen if they'd actually demanded those rights for real.

Jessica was standing up for everybody.
Does she 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.”

A very, very smart 16-year-old, isn't she?


Anonymous said...

"And Jessica is only 16 years old. She has to live in this town. She has to go to this school. Most of these Christians won't harm her, I'm sure. But they'll do their best to create an environment of fear. And if someone else harms her, oh, well, that's terrible, right? But she should have expected it..."

This is a huge leap to make as a statement, and does nothing to engender tolerance.

Gregg Garthright said...

I'm not sure who is supposed to "engender tolerance". The Christians who are threatening her certainly aren't. I don't think we should tolerate thuggish behavior like this. People threatening her are breaking the law, and I hope they charge people when they find out who it is.

Clearly, the ones making the threats are doing it to intimidate both Jessica and others. Jessica is apparently very brave - I'm a large adult male, and I'd be afraid of the threats.

Anonymous said...

We all should attempt to engender tolerance, those who threatened her should be prosecuted, but to assume that most of the Christians will do their best to create an environment of fear is a leap.

The real problem is we cannot it seems all learn to just accept each others differences and live together, groups on whichever side of the debate seem to be more interested in pushing their own point of view. Argument and debate is no longer reasoned but a case of he who shouts the loudest or longest wins. Emotionalism has replaced reason and the grand gesture has replaced debate.

I admire the young lady for following her principles and the judge for upholding the law, the banner was probably placed there all those years ago by an equally well meaning person who was sincere in their principles. Values and the world change.

Gregg Garthright said...

I don't think anyone said most christians were threatening her. Since it was a christian prayer, it seems safe to assume most of the threats were coming from christians.
It seems to me the lack of tolerance is coming from the religious side, or at least the vocal minority.I know some religious groups were calling for an acceptance of the decision.
I have never heard of atheists threatening christians over things like this.

Jeff said...

Do not pray in my school, and I will not think in your church.


WCG said...

Anonymous, you might want to read my post again. I said "these Christians," meaning the Christians I'd just been talking about - those who threatened her, those who called her an "evil little thing," those who refused to even deliver flowers to her.

I stand by my statement that those Christians are creating an environment of fear. I didn't say, nor imply, that all Christians were doing so.

And I, too, wonder what you mean by "engendering tolerance." Could you elaborate? Do you see a lack of tolerance anywhere but in those Christians who didn't want to obey the law?

After all, what's tolerance but not forcing your beliefs on everyone else? In America, that means you respect the separation of church and state and don't try to muscle your religious beliefs into public schools, however well-meaning you might be. (Of course, if anyone were forcing atheism into our public schools, I'd be just as opposed to that.)

Yes, I agree with the last part of your comment. All of those people were well-meaning. But the judge was right, and so was Jessica Ahlquist. The person who put up the prayer was well-meaning, but wrong - wrong even when he put it up, since it was just as unconstitutional then as it is now.

Anonymous said...

I see a lack of tolerance in the absolutes used in the debate in general. Both sides line up one, usually the Christian side throwing you're all going to hell and crushing my right to worship wherever I want, the other ridiculing and mocking the spirituality of others and likewise claiming their rights are crushed.

Both sides are trying to prove right and wrong instead of acceptance and tolerance, there is space for both philosophies. My belief is that nobody is ever swayed by absolutes but rather by rational respectful dialogue.

WCG you are correct when I reread your post your reference was to those mistreating Jessica. I found myself reacting instead of responding, my apologies.

Jeff thinking is what makes us human, and it is not your school it is our school, that is why prayer does not belong as part of the fabric of the institution but does belong for the individuals and groups who choose to do it.

Healthy respectful debate is what engenders tolerance, absolutes lead to intolerance. It seems more and more we live in a world of absolutes.

WCG said...

Anonymous, I value the truth. I value the marketplace of ideas, the give and take of debate where each side tries to demonstrate right and wrong. That's a good thing.

And it has nothing to do with tolerance. If you and I disagree about a factual claim (i.e. when it's not just a matter of taste), at least one of us is wrong. Maybe we're both wrong, but at least one of us is wrong. And if I'm wrong, I definitely want to know about it. Don't you?

This has nothing to do with tolerance. You have the right to your beliefs, even if I do think they're wrong. And I would defend your right to hold them, regardless of whether or not I thought your beliefs were right.

Of course, the right to hold those beliefs is not the right to impose them on anyone else. Free speech is one of the fundamental guarantees of our Bill of Rights, but there are limits. Generally, those limits are where your rights affect the rights of others.

So, likewise, I think it's a good thing when people stand up for the Constitution of the United States. We can disagree about when someone's rights are being "crushed," but I'm sure you're not claiming that it's wrong to seek regress when they are.

So, again, I fail to see the issue of "tolerance" in any of this. What does tolerance have to do with it? Even ridicule is a perfectly valid tactic in some circumstances (not when it becomes bullying, of course, but bullying a person, not an idea). You have the right to hold your beliefs, but not the right to prevent others from criticizing, or even ridiculing, them.

So where does tolerance come into this at all? It's not intolerant for Christians to tell me I'm going to hell. It's only intolerant if they discriminate against me for believing differently. And "absolutes lead to intolerance"? I have no idea what you mean by that. Please elaborate.

Jeff said...


It sounds to me like Anonymous is using the word "tolerance" as code for "playing the victim." It's a tactic conservatives often use.

Does that mean Anonymous is a conservative? I don't know.

Anonymous also seems to have misinterpreted my quote. "Modus vivendi" is where I was headed with that line. But, as history has shown, religion has never been too keen on modus vivendi.

I have always differentiated between "spirituality" and "religion."

To me, spirituality is about looking inward, seeking inner enlightenment. Contemplating, meditating. Having "God in your heart," so to speak.

Religion, IMO, is projecting outward; enforcing one's beliefs upon others. "Thou shalt worship no others but me," if you will.

If one is truly spiritual, taking a written prayer down from a wall is not going to bother one too much; it's already in one's heart. It's the people mired in RELIGION that are freaking out.

And if religion is not projecting outward upon others, the how does one explain the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the Jihads, this latest episode with Jessica, etc., etc,.

Oy vey, I think WAAAY TOOO much!!

Chimeradave said...

Wow, I used to go to my Grandmother's house in Rhode Island every year during the summer. I already knew there were a lot of uppity rich folk in the state and I knew Rhode Islanders often consider themselves to be in their own little world. But, I never guessed they could be so small minded to revile a teenage standing up for constitutional rights!

Anonymous said...

A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own

This seems a useful definition.

I was going to leave this as it originally began as me mistaking the initial intention of the writer, I thought he was making a sweeping statement about all christians, I have apologized for this mistake.

The point I would like to make is that while christians and other religions continue to meet this type of event with anger, division will continue, while agnostics and atheists continue to relate to those involved in religions with ridicule we are destined to continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Separation of church and state is essential, a banner or a statue is irrelevant, while we allow the bigots on both sides of the fence to lead the discussion by having louder voices than the reasonable we are destined to have an intolerant society. At present it is hard enough for us to even follow the lowest definition of the word and just co-exist.

Chris (anon because I have no account that will work)

WCG said...

Chris, thanks for the comments! (It's always nice to have a name to go with them, too.)

I think I can fully agree with your definition of tolerance, especially since it doesn't include not criticizing other beliefs. As you recognize, it's not intolerant to criticize beliefs.

Believers are not being intolerant when they tell me I'm wrong, even when they warn me that I'll burn in Hell, if that's what they believe. I'm glad to see that you recognize that.

It's also not intolerant to ridicule beliefs that you find ridiculous. It may not be very polite, especially directed at an individual - that could even turn into bullying, which I will not defend - but it's not intolerant, as long as you recognize a person's right to hold those beliefs, however ridiculous they might seem to you.

But I disagree about one thing: loud arguments aren't (necessarily) the hallmark of an intolerant society. It might even be just the reverse. Intolerant societies normally don't allow such open debate.

But we have a nation of people who vehemently disagree about beliefs both sides think are important. It's going to get loud. It's going to get vehement. And there's likely to be some anger, when a person's cherished beliefs are criticized.

But is this a bad thing? No, not as long as that anger doesn't get out of hand. In fact, I'd say that it's a good thing. We should all have our beliefs questioned. I want to have my beliefs questioned, because I care about the truth. And if my beliefs aren't true, I definitely want to know about it. (That's why I especially welcome comments here by people who disagree with me.)

None of this has anything to do with tolerance. I can think you're wrong and still defend your right to your beliefs. In fact, I will defend your right to your beliefs, whatever they are (actions might be another matter, depending on what they are).

And I will live in peace with anyone willing to live in peace with me. I may think your beliefs are absolutely crazy, but saying so does not make me intolerant. (True, it might make me unpopular with my neighbors.)

To truly have a tolerant society, we must get away from this idea that disagreement is bad. Diversity is the spice of life, and a free and open expression of ideas is absolutely critical for a healthy society.

There is nothing wrong with vehement debate about issues we all find important. Just the reverse, in fact. It is a positive good in a tolerant society.

m1nks said...

Yeah, can't really get into this debate. Personally I think it's raised a lot of hate for not very much gain. Yes she's right legally I'm sure but was it worth all the hatred just to prove the point? You'll no doubt say it was; I just don't think I agree.

WCG said...

Well, you're not an American, m1nks, so you might not realize how fundamental the separation of church and state is here. It's one of the bedrock principles of our Constitution.

It's a big deal here, it really is. That "wall of separation between church and state" (Thomas Jefferson's words) has been under attack ever since our Constitution was ratified, and it stays strong only through vigilant defense.

In the past, both of our political parties defended it in principle (even if they weren't so virtuous in practice). These days, that's not true. The Republican Party no longer seems to support the separation of church and state at all.

At any rate, this might seem like a minor issue to you - just a legal technicality - but it's of real significance here in America. You don't get any more fundamental to our system of government than freedom of religion and the strict separation of church and state.

On the other hand, there are certainly Americans who would agree with you. Reasonable people can and do disagree about such things. Is the benefit worth the cost? That's a judgment call.

But just don't dismiss this as a minor issue. It's not, not here in America.

m1nks said...

Question - wasn't there some hoo-ha raised a while ago about some guy objecting to a nativity scene? If so that's the sort of thing I mean.

You're right though I don't live in America and I guess I just might not get it. An old prayer or banner on a school wall raises no ire in me at all, just as a nativity wouldn't. I think they are pretty :-). I wouldn't object to either any more than I would object to a painting of the Greek Gods in the National Art Gallery. Or (to make it relevant to me) to have been given a religious song to sing during choir at school. In fact no doubt a few of them were.

It's not that I don't think that the division of State and Church needs to be defended, just that I'm not convinced that this is the best battle to choose. When you push people into a corner they fight back viciously and it works both sides. Jessica’s blog also has a large chunk of self righteous 16 year old 'I'm right, I'm right, I'm right'! Would a lot of it be caused by the fact that she's getting attacked? Of course. There is nothing that creates a fanatic faster than someone attacking your belief. Reason and compromise just goes clean out the window.

Your point will no doubt be 'but we need to fight to protect this wall against the Republicans which attack it, and after all they started it'. Ok, you're probably right. If this is some sort of war however then the individual battles need to be picked with care, especially in the beginning. To fight against the teaching of 'intelligent design' in a science class - a critical battle that needs to be fought tooth and nail with facts, logic, law and anything else. The removal of an old prayer from a wall, something that has been there for years because a 16 year old girl got the hump over it? That is just going to piss off a lot of people and make those that didn't necessarily have strong opinions suddenly be confronted with a situation that demands that they make one. I can just see them all clustered around in little groups, the outrage dripping off their lips.

"And now do you see the evilness of these god forsaken Satanists Ethel?! Forcing the removal of a historical prayer because a devil worshipping heathen hates God and everything our country stands for! And the law lets this happen. We need to elect Santorum and make people see that this is what the country is heading towards. They say that they just want to live in tolerance but this is their true face! Now you understand don't you!?"


WCG said...

There are regularly problems in America with nativity scenes on public property, m1nks. It's hard to pick out any particular dispute which stands out above all the others. That is simply unconstitutional here, unless such space is open to all.

I guess I still disagree with you. It's not that I agree with every atheist who makes a complaint. Sometimes, I just think that they're wrong.

But I admire people who stand up for the U.S. Constitution. This isn't a minor issue, even if the individual violations might seem minor.

And those people we're pissing off are going to hate us anyway, unless we stay in the closet and never rock the boat at all.

After all, a prayer doesn't have to be in a public school. It can be in a private building, instead (and I'm guessing that's exactly where this will end up). So what's the problem?

Some atheists agree with you. That's OK. The gay community had different ideas about the best way to achieve their civil rights, too. Some were much more aggressive than others. But I suspect that the combination of the two worked better than either approach alone.

At any rate, I think the experience of gay people coming out of the closet has a lot to teach us atheists. You can't make any progress without pissing off a lot of people. That's just the way it is.

We're here, we're non-believers, get used to us. Hmm,... that doesn't rhyme very well, does it? :)