Friday, January 27, 2012

Jessica Ahlquist: Teen Advocate for the Separation of Church and State

Jessica Ahlquist

The New York Times reported today on the plight of high school student Jessica Ahlquist. She is the young woman who, as the lead defendant in a case against her tax funded high school, was asked by her local chapter of the ACLU to take part in a lawsuit against her school board.  

The lawsuit sought to enjoin her high school from keeping a prayer hung in the school and to ensure that there is no state sponsored preference given to any religion.  The suit was heard and the judge in the case saw the plaque as a form of approved religious prayer and found it unconstitutional.

It is reported that Jessica, at age ten, became an atheist when her mother took ill.  A choice many of us make at a young age when we realize that random illness isn’t part of a greater plan, but just a tough break is a cold, uncaring universe.

In 1963, the school placed a plaque up in her high school next to the auditorium, it reads:

“School Prayer: Our Heavenly Father, grant us each day the desire to do our best to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers, to be honest with ourselves as well as with others, help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win. Teach us the value of friendship. Help us to bring credit to Cranston High School West. Amen”

The Rhode Island town where the high school stands has a population of about 80,000 people, most of whom are Roman Catholic.  The town’s mayor recently went on a radio program and called Jessica an “evil little thing” and many in the town have threatened the young lady. The Times reports that many of her fellow students have also threatened her and that the police escort her to school.

The scary thing is that those who are religious see Jessica and those who believe in separation of church and state in a secular society as perpetrating or causing a “war on religion.” That is pure pretzel logic since what these lawsuits really demand is no religious sanctioning of faith in our public spaces. 

Which is why if one reads the First Amendment of the Constitution, one can clearly see that the document bars any national, state or local entity that is funded by citizen dollars from showing a preference or having an acknowledged endorsement of any faith. Simply put, to do so remains illegal.   

If this plaque hung in a parochial school, there wouldn’t be an issue.  If the plaque didn’t pray to a “heavily father” or have the word “Amen” and just used the terms and ideas in a more generic or secular way, again, there would be no issue.  Can you imagine the plaque being written and hung to call on the god or gods of the Apache, or spirituality of Hinduism, or a call to Islamic Sharia law or Hebrew prayers? The townspeople certainly would not have put it up.

But the plaque also offends those who have no faith or any need for a “heavenly father.” And as such violates the rights of a growing population in the U.S. from being bombarded by religious faith and certainly where no such religious faith need be sanctioned, namely in our public schools.

Let’s also remember that the plaque calls to a very specific god, and a specific spiritual and religious guiding force. Most probably those who have long been offended may not have had the nerve to call the plaque exactly what it is. And what it is is a violation of the Separation clause and as such is unconstitutional, even if the community’s beliefs are otherwise.

The Constitution protects all people, not those who just live in one place or community.  This is why the judge found the plaque to be illegal, and why in numerous other cases, why Judges always find school boards wrong when they attempt to add or teach Intelligent Design in high school science class or add it to the curriculum.

The United States is a nation which bases its law on secular values and this is why the religious always lose their battles to place religion and religious faith in our public schools and public life. That is, no matter how many times they attempt to confront the Constitution as allowing such violations to be rendered legal. We must all stand with Jessica, religious or not, since good citizens have a right to confront tyrannical thought and action through legal remedies any and every time such tyranny appears.

Jessica, we wish you congratulations and offer you our deepest respect. It is young people such as you who will ensure the United States remains a secular nation. Keep standing up for what you believe in as both right and Constitutional.


  1. People can express their support to Jessica by sending her a message on her Twitter page!/jessicaahlquist

  2. I found this article that can complement the text above:

  3. Sorry, I realised the link I gave above doesn't work. Use this one instead:

  4. Hi Michel,

    Thank you for your dilligence. The link you provided certainly helps to enhance the post.

    I really apprectiate your efforts to bring content and free-thought to the site.


  5. I found Jessica's blog. Her blog :

    Our readers can profit of the opportunity to go to the blog above and find the link to her Twitter page, so they can write her a message of support, that will be particularily appreciated by her, especially in these tough times. To give just a few examples, Jessica had to go to school under the protection of the police. She even received hate mails. I cannot figure out how she can stand it, being a 16 years old teenager.