The Course of Reason

A Quick History

May 21, 2011

Jessica Ahlquist writes about her experience trying to bring secularism to her school.

This article originally appeared on Jessica's blog. More information on the prayer can be found here.

Hey everyone! This blog has been in the works for quite a while now, and it’s finally done! I apologize for the delay, but I’ve been incredibly busy with school and other craziness. I have been mulling over what my first post should be about, and I’ve decided that I should give you all a little history on the whole issue.

I became an atheist at a very young age. Although I was born into and baptized through the Catholic Church, I was encouraged to think for myself and form my own opinions. I have my sensitivity and obsession with fairness to thank for my disbelief. For me, religion does more bad than good and it certainly does not reflect the morals of equality which I live by. However, I was in the closet about my atheism until I reached middle school.

Growing up, I assumed that everyone thought this way. I assumed that all people wanted what was best for everyone and could accept those who were different than themselves. I remember learning about slavery and the holocaust, wondering how these things could have truly happened. I would sit in the back of the class sobbing, which my classmates had a field day with.

I was naïve. I was under the impression that people instinctively knew right from wrong. Well, I was seriously mistaken.

I was a freshman when I first found out about the prayer. Towards the end of the year, a dear friend of mine noticed it painted on the wall of our auditorium and immediately told me about it. As atheists, we pondered the “School Prayer” and questioned its Constitutionality. It didn’t take us long to come to the conclusion that this was obviously a violation.

As we discussed what we were going to do about this, school let out and summer break began. During our vacation, it came up in the news that a brave parent had filed a complaint to the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU after seeing the prayer at a function held in the auditorium. When I read about this, I wanted to show my support for the prayer’s removal. I eventually did just that by creating a Facebook group entitled “Support the Removal of the Cranston High School West Prayer.” For the first few months, there were less than twenty members in the group. It wasn’t until the first sub-committee meeting in November that I was able to share my opinion.

At this point, I was still thinking that the committee would just say “Oops, sorry. We didn’t realize that was there, we’ll take it right down!” I now laugh when I think about how absolutely wrong I was.

At the first meeting, I spoke in front of the sub-committee and about ten or fifteen residents. I presented myself as an atheist, aware that the word was taboo, but unaware of just how much. When I said this, I heard a small gasp along with a bit of whispering. As I sat down after speaking, one of the accepting, non-judgmental Christians in the room mumbled “that little witch!” under her breath.

That night, a local news channel wanted to interview me. I agreed, and presented my beliefs on television. There were also several newspapers that covered the story that night. From that point on, I was considered the “face” of this issue.

There were several other meetings held to “discuss” the issue. At each meeting, the crowd grew and grew. Unfortunately, it was the other side gaining numbers. They printed the words “KEEP ORIGINAL BANNER” on blue paper and used string to wear them as signs around their necks. They showed up in mobs, ready with hate-filled speeches about how their religious freedom was being violated. They said that if I didn’t like their “Christian nation”, I should just leave. In fact, at several meetings I was personally attacked and accused due to my beliefs and position.

Without a legal leg to stand on, they used every excuse in the book. I was completely dumbfounded by some of the arguments they made in favor of the prayer. They claimed from the beginning that the prayer did not violate anyone’s rights or discriminate in any way. They argued that it was “student artwork”, as it was written by a child when the school first opened. They even tried to say at one point that the “School Prayer”, was not a prayer.

And of course, they stampede into these meetings with the attitude that they are superior, God loves them, and that they can do whatever the hell they want simply because God said so. They march in huge numbers to intimidate the minority and force them back into the closet. “If you don’t like it, too bad, we get to do what we want!” That, boys and girls, is what you call a bully. Bullying is unacceptable.

After hours and hours of pointless meetings and discussion, the school board voted 4-3 to keep the prayer and fight the ACLU in court. I received an email from the ACLU asking if I would like to sign on to the lawsuit as a plaintiff in the case against the city, and I agreed.

Since the press release on April 4, things have continued to get even crazier.

The morning after the press release, I walked into homeroom. The first thing I was greeted by were my classmates gossiping about how “mad retarded” I am for doing this. These students mind you, do not speak to me. Here they are passing judgment on me and what I believe without having talked to me for even a second. As I sat down, I said “good morning” to a couple of my peers who did not return the friendly gesture or even acknowledge my existence. During the pledge that morning, the students in my homeroom turned and yelled “Under GOD!” at me. The teacher said and did nothing.

Several weeks ago, we had “diversity week” at my school. During this annual event students at the school come together to speak on issues regarding racial and cultural differences, bullying, respect, LGBTQ, etc. The entire week is full of assemblies that teachers can choose to have their classes attend. One morning in chemistry class, we went down to the auditorium (so yes, I was required to be in there) to see our Mayor Fung speak about his life as a Chinese-American minority. At the end, he took questions. One student asked how he felt about the prayer banner which was clearly painted on the wall right beside us. He pointed to it and passionately said “I would like to see that prayer stay exactly where it is!” The applause he received for this would probably be comparable to that of the applause for the cure of cancer. I was the only student that I could see that remained seated, not cheering or applauding for disregarding the Constitution and the rights of minorities. I’m sure Mayor Fung feels quite confident about the next election now.

Now, of course the intimidation and hate do bother me sometimes. However, the love and support have more than compensated for such intolerance. The religious crowd in favor of keeping the prayer is trying to scare me into backing down. What they don’t realize is that the harder they try to make me feel hated, the more confidence and determination I have. The more they fight for the apparent God-given right to violate The Constitution, the more important it becomes that I defend our rights and speak out against this unacceptable discrimination.

And it’s paying off.

After talking with Harrison Hopkins, a high school senior in South Carolina, he decided to bravely fight the illegal graduation prayer which was to be said at his ceremony this June. Through the FFRF, he was able to heroically stop this prayer from being endorsed by the school. Will the ever so classy students of Laurens District High School pray anyway just to make him feel hated and inferior? Of course. He’s currently facing horrid amounts of backlash from his school and community simply for defending his rights. Even still, his convictions are unwavering as he refuses to back down, despite what the majority think they are entitled to do.

Another story that surfaced just this week is Damon Fowler’s fight against the graduation prayer at his public high school in Louisiana. I cannot even begin to describe the kinds of hateful nonsense that has taken place because of this. After his parents disowned him, he attended his graduation in which the students prayed despite this brave stand against inequality. It wasn’t until after Damon and I started talking that he realized he was already familiar with my story. In fact, I am absolutely flattered to be what he has called his “inspiration” for fighting this:

Watching YouTube videos Saturday, I came across a video of a girl who stood up for the separation of church and state. I didn’t realize until now, but I’ve been talking to her since all of this started… Thank you, Jessica Ahlquist for inspiring me to make a difference, and thank you for the support. :)

And maybe I’ve lost it, but this actually brought me to tears. In the beginning of all this chaos, I never would have guessed that my actions could result in something so huge. For me, this was always something that I just had to do. While I am completely horrified and disgusted by the hate which they are facing, I am overjoyed that they have decided to fight for their rights as well. I am honored to call these two brave heroes my new friends.

We may be young, but we do have voices. As students, atheists, and Americans, we must defend our rights. This country and all of the beautiful liberties it has were not given to us by God. They were fought for relentlessly by heroes who understood equality and the need for a wall between church and state.

I speak on behalf of the three of us when I encourage other atheists to come out of the closet and stick up for our equality. They cannot repress us unless we allow them to.

And I apologize for being incredibly cheesy and emotional, I have been up all night and I am in love with this movement.

 

Comments:

#1 Brian Douglas (Guest) on Sunday May 22, 2011 at 5:28pm

Truly amazing! You and the other teenagers taking a stand on this are brave as hell, and I admire you guys. Good luck!

#2 Aaron Patterson (Guest) on Sunday May 22, 2011 at 5:58pm

Wow! I've been so lucky to go to very Liberal schools that recognize the rights of each and every student. These stories that are coming out lately are a harsh reminder that there are still such ignorant people out there.

#3 Hayden (Guest) on Sunday May 22, 2011 at 6:00pm

You are quite inspirational to go through with you have done. Most people are simply too bigoted to see past there own arrogance and ignorance of the real matter at hand such as the christians you have opposing you. Down here we don't really have freedom of religion to the degree you have so scripture and prayer in public schools can still happen here (we are currently fighting our chaplaincy program as it is a waste of resources better spent on teacher training and education).

Keep fighting the good rational fight!

#4 Rob (Guest) on Sunday May 22, 2011 at 6:30pm

I am a non-demoninational Christian with many atheist friends and I am behind the prayer removal 100%. I think it's cool that you are standing up for what you believe in, just remember ... it's only paint on a wall. Both sides of this issue should try to keep this fact in mind.

#5 John (Guest) on Sunday May 22, 2011 at 7:41pm

I can't begin to tell you how inspiring I found your post. As a father of two grade-school aged girls, I found your story to be a powerful message that I will happily share with them on standing up for yourself and for what is right.

I wish you all the best, and thank you for standing up for yourself as well as atheist students everywhere!

#6 Joey Klatzko (Guest) on Sunday May 22, 2011 at 7:58pm

Just wanted to let you know that I support you 100%. Don't let the ignorance get you down! There are people out there that truly appreciate what you're doing.

#7 Marienne Lou (Guest) on Sunday May 22, 2011 at 8:28pm

As a Christian, I am outraged and disgusted (though not shocked) by the actions...of my fellow Christians. I believe everyone has the freedom to CHOSE their own religion, or lack of it. Having a "school prayer" is ridiculous. I want my children to get their education at school, and their religious upbringing at churches, mosques, temples, etc. You don't see the periodic table of elements at church, right? Keep the prayers out of school so the kids can be comfortable and not alienated, and can focus on their education.

Jessica, we have different religious views, but I support you. Good luck on your journey and I hope everything ends well. I won't pray for you, but I'll send some positive vibes your way. Hope you don't mind ;)

#8 Michelle (Guest) on Sunday May 22, 2011 at 9:10pm

As a mom, and a non-believer myself, I want to say how amazed I am by your bravery and your guts! So great to see all of these teens standing up for themselves. Bravo!

#9 Michael Underwood (Guest) on Sunday May 22, 2011 at 10:47pm

This is really inspiring. So young, yet so determined to uphold the constitution.

Again; inspiring. Don't give up. I would have done the exact same were I you, and it is beyond impressive that you've managed to stay more mature than most of the adults you're up against.

#10 Drew Price (Guest) on Sunday May 22, 2011 at 11:17pm

After reading this, I feel that it is simply amazing that you started at a young age. Not only that, but you've already accomplished a lot.
You and Damon are both quite inspiring to me, currently only a Junior in High School. I have not heard much of Harrison, but I do hope things go well for the three of you.
I do not think my school is holding a prayer, and I feel lucky for that. However, I will still try and support you three.
Best of luck.

#11 Ola (Guest) on Sunday May 22, 2011 at 11:17pm

Norway is a country with a state religion, so we do not have seperation of church and state (yet). The cons are that there is (voluntary) church attendance for christmas, easter and on our national day for pupils, the pros are that the state goes in and moderate the raging fundamentalist christians so our church (mostly) allows gay marriage and gay/female priests etc. We however do not have prayer IN school for graduations and other official school business - it's probably not illegal like in the US, but with å population of 72% atheists, quite a lot of muslims and a shitload of different christian sects it is just as well to leave that part out ;)

However, on the whole, atheist-bashing (granted, the fresh muslim immigrants are very eager to make a point out of how godless we all are, but hopefully they will stop that after being more integrated) does very seldom occur in Norway, the christians here seem to accept that most people does not believe and let it be with that. Also, atheists are the majority as previously mentioned.

That is why I am enormously impressed by your courage to stand up to the massive herd of fundies in your location. Being the one person that fights for what is lawfully right in a community like yours must be really hard and I support you to the fullest.

The best of luck and my respect to you!

#12 Brad (Guest) on Monday May 23, 2011 at 1:08am

Keep up the good work. As a fellow Rhode Islander, I am shocked that this is even an issue. I mean, in Louisiana you might expect it, its wrong, but you might expect it. but really Rhode Island? I'm disappointed.

I'll be keeping an eye on this story in case there is anyway to help!

#13 James (Guest) on Monday May 23, 2011 at 3:27am

You are and will be an inspiration to hundreds if not thousands of people. I find it hard to believe what non-believers have to face in the USA - I hardly hear of anything like that here in Great Britain and we have a state religion!

Keep standing tall - we're behind you.

#14 RickRay (Guest) on Monday May 23, 2011 at 8:04am

I am 62 years young and I continue to want to learn more about the universe and its operations. I don't really fit in with most older folk because they are so brainwashed and anti-intellectual. I am so very proud of the younger generation who are actually beginning to think about what they and/or their parents believe in. The atheist sites and anti-religious books I have come across have opened up a whole new world to me in the last 5 years. I just admire how a lot of the younger generation is accepting evolution and willing to learn about it. Maybe there is hope for human civilization to eventually come together and realize that religion is so divisive and that it is time to let science & technology direct the world to peace and understanding.

#15 nikkis (Guest) on Monday May 23, 2011 at 8:17am

I'm so impressed by your involvement and dedication. I almost feel as if I'm seeing a MUCH younger version of myself only with the benefits of social networking, digital access and some (although not nearly enough) progress in terms of civic and cultural tolerance. One thing that hasn't changed in more than forty years (gulp) is peer pressure: those who question or doubt or even want to open up to other points of view are still hassled by classmates and chastised or even feared by teacher and administrators. Good for you sticking up for your guns and trying to keep them from telling you to get comfortable with religion in school or suck it up. ask away: we're here to support you. Nikki Stern, founder, "Does This Make Sense"

#16 Vill on Monday May 23, 2011 at 8:19am

Good for you standing up for your rights! Although I'm sure you're reading it already elsewhere, I just wanted to say that as much as there is a backlash against you there, there is also a LOT of support for you out in the world. From all over the world. Keep going!

#17 Bill Snedden (Guest) on Monday May 23, 2011 at 9:14am

"Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy" Winston Churchill

#18 Blythe (Guest) on Monday May 23, 2011 at 12:49pm

I was inspired by your post. Frankly, the hypocrisy of Christians is depressing (by no means am I referring to all of them, merely a majority :) ).
I am astounded that you could cry through learning about slavery and the Holocaust. However, now that I think of it: I think your response was far more human than than that of your classmates.
I wish you the best in your future endeavors, and I believe that things will turn out fine. Never forget that there are people out there who you can lean on for support.
- Blythe

#19 Peter Lorbiecki (Guest) on Monday May 23, 2011 at 2:12pm

I am a proud Catholic, and also a proud believer in individual rights. Thank you for standing up for our basic rights!!! Public schools should be objective, anyone who forces their beliefs on someone else drives me crazy, regardless of whether or not we agree. It's just too bad that more people can't understand how hypocritical and unjust this is. Keep up the good work!

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