(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?