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?