Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist complained about a prayer banner hanging in the auditorium at Cranston High School West that referred to “Our Heavenly Father” in July of 2010.
School authorities brushed off her complaint, saying the banner was artistic and historic, as it had been hanging there for decades. Ahlquist later joined the American Civil Liberties Union in a suit alleging that the banner made her feel “ostracized and out of place.”
After much legal wrangling, a court ruled that the banner needed to be removed — and an uproar ensued.
The controversy helped Ahlquist, an atheist, collect thousands of friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter.
But it also sparked outrage on behalf of many others who embraced the banner and wanted the school district to stand firm. A state legislator called Ahlquist an “evil little thing.” There were death threats. The financially strapped school district spent tens of thousands on legal fees. And recall threats were lodged against the school board.
The school board dropped the appeal of the decision this past week.
Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association looks at Ahlquist’s journey:
“When I first heard about the issue, I found it very black and white. I assumed everyone would agree that it was a violation.” However, Ahlquist continued, “When I realized that people wanted to keep the prayer and refused to acknowledge that it was unconstitutional, I decided I needed to speak. For me, this has always been something that needed to be done. It’s always strange when people call me a hero. All I’ve ever wanted to do is the right thing.”
In this case, “doing the right thing” has had its costs. The morning after the lawsuit was filed Ahlquist “walked into homeroom and immediately sensed that [her] reputation had changed.” She informed me, “People turned to stare at me and gossiped with their friends. During the Pledge of Allegiance that morning, my classmates turned and yelled ‘UNDER GOD’ at me.” Since then, Ahlquist has faced similar challenges both in and out of school.
The Internet, which in recent years has become a popular outlet for teenage bullying, has once again provided a forum for particularly discriminatory comments. One specific commenter exclaimed, “It was by the grace of God that this despicable little monster of a girl has the freedom to express her anti-beliefs and nationally broadcast her extreme tolerance: the atheist way. I try really hard to be a good Christian, but this is just too much. This is what happens when kids don’t get discipline, and when parents are deadbeats. Boo these people, I hope they lose their homes.”
Ahlquist’s advice to others is “not to be afraid.” Through attending conferences such as the American Humanist Association’s, as well as working with national student groups such as the Secular Student Alliance, Ahlquist has been able to find support for her views. She encourages other young atheists to do the same. “I would advise any young atheists out there to set up a group where nonreligious teens can make friends, do community service projects, and change the negative image that many people have of atheists,” Ahlquist said. “Coming out as an atheist publically is scary, but absolutely necessary. ‘Atheist’ has become such a taboo word that many people see us as evil. It is often difficult to be a minority, but it is very important that we stop hiding and work together. Just remember that you’re not alone!”
Prominent atheists have raised money to present Ahlquist with a scholarship: $44,000 has been collected to date.