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God Ain’t No Prom King: Jessica Ahlquist And Religion In Schools

By Serge Bielanko |

The prayer in question

Sixteen-year-old Rhode Islander, Jessica Ahlquist, knows how to stir things up.

The high school student and self-proclaimed atheist, who first made world headlines in her quest to have a decades-old prayer mural removed from school’s wall, has been awarded a $40,000 college scholarship by her internet supporters.

It all started in June 2010 when Ahlquist went through the American Civil Liberties Union to file suit against Cranston High School West, seeking to remove a mural which contained religious phrases that she claimed made her, as an atheist, feel “ostracized and out of place.”

That opened the proverbial can of whoop-ash and the student found herself in the middle of an increasingly volatile and heated debate between parents, teachers, fellow students, and people all over the world who stood firmly on either side of the debate.

Does religion belong in American schools? they argued.

Is an atheist minority to be considered when questions of church and state collide?

Who should have a say when God shows up for class? they demanded.  And who should not?

In the middle of it all the young Ms. Ahlquist has continually proven herself to be a more rational, collected, and eloquent speaker/debater than quite a few of the many people who have lined up to oppose her views, her lack of particular faith, and her commitment to a potato so piping hot that even her legions of fellow atheists were caught off guard when she appeared on the scene.

Of course, this is the United States in the 21st Century, and thus there has been no shortage of hyper-aggressive emails, hellfire and damnation wielding picket posters, and plain old American death threats aimed at the kid with the big Constitutional questions.

It’s a riveting debate for a father to watch: wondering how my wife and I would handle it if our daughter was Jessica.

And beyond that, it’s an intrinsically American yarn spun for this very moment in time, a Presidential moment when there is more and more God/Dogma/The-Old-Book-or-Bust being thrust at all of us, no matter who we are, or whether we want it or not.

Last month, a U.S. District Judge ruled in favor of Jessica Ahlquist’s suit, stating that “no amount of debate can make the school prayer anything other than a prayer.”

Shortly thereafter, state representative Peter Palumbo gave an interview in which he declared that Ahlquist was an “evil little thing.”

Yet somehow I don’t see her as the evil one at all.

How about you?

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About Serge Bielanko


Serge Bielanko

Serge Bielanko writes about fatherhood for Babble Dad and about marriage stuff for Babble Voices at He Said/She Said. His writing has appeared in Esquire and The Huffington Post, as well as on his personal blog, Thunder Pie. He lives with his wife and two kids in central Pennsylvania. Read bio and latest posts → Read Serge's latest posts →

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7 thoughts on “God Ain’t No Prom King: Jessica Ahlquist And Religion In Schools

  1. Juli says:

    I think she’s an intelligent girl who saw an opportunity and took it. What she did shows the best and worst of what this country is all about. If you can find a reason to be offended by something, there’s a pretty damn good chance you can bring up a lawsuit over it. We are all entitled to our beliefs or dis-beliefs. Personally, I think her suit was frivolous. The mural was there long before she was born and it was her parent’s choice regarding where they live and the school their daughter attends. Maybe she will sue her parents for sending her to that school?

  2. Kate says:

    When I was a child, which was quite a long time ago, I found myself distressed by the line in the Pledge of Allegiance which says “one nation, under God”. My understanding was that our country enjoyed a separation of church and state, and as such, my young mind reasoned, wasn’t it wrong to have people recite those words in public places? I also noted that there were some kids who could not or would not say the Pledge, and remained seated during it. I wondered why that was.

    Now, I’m the parent of a teen who has raised similar questions. I still do not know the answers. I don’t know why religion is ever allowed to enter into any public meeting, gathering, or school. If we are truly a nation that enjoys freedom of religion, then religion belongs in the church and in the home, and not in our schools and courthouses.

    Jessica Ahlquist is an incredibly brave young lady. She stands up for what she believes — for what she knows is right — despite what it may do to her personally. Jessica Ahlquist understands better than most Americans what freedom is all about.

    I will tell my son about her, and the problems she has faced. Maybe that will help him understand.

  3. Karen says:

    Reading that prayer on the wall, I find it has such a nice message… strive to be good people at this school, and yet…

    The ‘heavenly father’ address makes me bristle, as I am tiiiiired, tired I say, of the the dudes being in control: the dudes who wrote the bible, the dudes who jam it down our throats, and the doods (especially the politically inclined birth control admonishers) telling us what to do.

    And what if you’re not an atheist as Jessica is? Perhaps a Buddhist or Hindu? I think that the time has passed for the prayer to be displayed, and for Jessica to voice her opinion is quite correct. Enter: the haters.

  4. Dork Dad says:

    Public school, like our courts and police departments, are a branch of our government. As such, they are obligated to be representative of ALL citizens, not just atheist, christians, muslims etc. For that government agency to post publically a religious document is tantamount to an endorsement, and therefore excludes any members of the citizenry that do not identify with that religious subset. For our government (schools, courts, police, etc) to truly representative it has to be completely religiously neutral. That doesn’t mean taking an atheist stance, that just means taking NO stance on religion, for the sake of everybody (religious and non-religious alike). If, on the other hand, the general citizenry votes in majority to allign our government and all it’s branches with one particular religious inclination, then all’s fair, and those who aren’t comfortable with public expressions of religion have to make peace with the fact that they are in the minority. But as long as we value seperation of church and state (for the protectionof EVERYONE), we have to have very strict policies to that end. Posting prayer in school, or the 10 commandments in a courtroom is not seperation of church and state, it’s blending of church and state. We, as a nation, need to be very clear on whether or not we want to “blend” or “seperate”, and hold ourselves and our public entities accountable. For now, the precident is “seperation”. So seperate, and take down the prayer in the public school. Change the law and I’ll (reluctantly) support the law of the land.

    -Dork Dad

  5. txmom says:

    So…take out the title, “School Prayer,” the opening, “Our Heavenly Father,” and “Amen,” and be done with it. Same sentiment; problem solved.

  6. The Dudes's Daddy says:

    Religion is personal, it does not belong in public places. Jessica is a brave young woman, who reminds us all that a single individual can make a difference in the world.

  7. Courtney says:

    you people are idiots refusing to say the pledge because you disagree with it is heartless we say it to honor those that have died for our safety and freedom. yeah this young girl was brave but misguided

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