If you take away just two things from the story about atheist high school student Jessica Ahlquist, and the court case she won last week to have a prayer banner taken out of her public school, let it be these:
- The ruling in this case was entirely unsurprising. It is 100 percent in line with unambiguous legal precedent, established and re-established over many decades, exemplifying a basic principle of constitutional law.
- As a result of this lawsuit, Jessica Ahlquist is now being bullied, ostracized and threatened with violence in her community. She has been called “evil” in public by her state representative, and is being targeted with multiple threats of violence, rape and death.
Which leads one to wonder: What the hell is going on here?
Let’s get #1 out of the way first. This court decision — that as a public school in the United States, Cranston High School West cannot promote religion, either any particular religion or the idea of religion in general — is, in any legal sense, entirely non-controversial. In ruling after ruling, for decades now, this principle has been made eminently clear. There have, of course, been some genuinely controversial court cases recently about separation of church and state, which examined previously untested questions and established new legal precedent.
But Jessica Ahlquist’s was not one of them. Not even in the slightest. This was a no-brainer. If the school district’s lawyers didn’t uncategorically advise the district that they didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell, and fervently plead with them to concede the case before trial, they should be disbarred. (A PDF of the full court ruling, including extensive citation of clear precedent, can be found on the Friendly Atheist blog.)
For anyone who doesn’t understand this ruling or agree with it, let me take a moment to explain. First of all: No, the majority does not always rule. In a constitutional democracy, people with minority, dissenting, or unpopular opinions and identities have some basic rights, which the majority cannot take away. If the majority thought that everyone had to dye their hair brown, or that all witches should be burned at the stake, the majority would not rule. Redheads have the right not to dye their hair brown; witches have the right not to be burned at the stake. No matter how much in the minority they are.
And the right to not have your government impose a religious belief on you is one of these basic rights. The right to make your own private decisions about religion or the lack thereof, without your government enforcing or promoting a particular view on religion that may or may not be your own, is one of the most central rights that this country was founded on. In fact, it’s the very first right established in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux said in his ruling, “When focused on the Prayer Mural, the activities and agenda of the Cranston School Committee became excessively entangled with religion, exposing the Committee to a situation where a loud and passionate majority encouraged it to vote to override the constitutional rights of a minority.”
Oh, and no, this case was not about “history” or “tradition.” Many people opposed to this ruling are making a very disingenuous argument: saying that the prayer in question wasn’t really a prayer, that the religious content wasn’t really religious but was simply “history” and “tradition,” and that it therefore shouldn’t be a problem. Bull. When a public school has a banner in its auditorium beginning “Our Heavenly Father” and ending “Amen”… that’s a prayer. The religious fervor with which the banner was defended attests to that. As Judge Lagueux pointed out in his ruling, “No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.” Furthermore:
The Court refrains from second-guessing the expressed motives of the Committee members, but nonetheless must point out that tradition is a murky and dangerous bog. While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction. The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular.
And — very crucially:
The retention of the Prayer Mural is no doubt a nod to Cranston West’s tradition and history, yet that nod reflects the nostalgia felt by some members of the community who remember fondly when the community was sufficiently homogeneous that the religion of its majority could be practiced in public schools with impunity.
And no, this court ruling didn’t take away anyone’s right to practice their own religion, or to express their religious views, or to pray at their school, or even to organize religious student clubs on their school campus. People in Cranston, Rhode Island are still entirely free to do all these things. The ruling simply said that, as a government institution, Cranston High School West is not allowed to endorse any one of those religious views and practices. It said — has been said again and again and again by the courts in the United States — that the government, including the public schools, should stay out of the question of religion.
This is a principle that doesn’t just protect atheists. It protects everyone’s right to practice their own religion, or lack thereof, as they choose — regardless of whether that religion is the majority or the minority. As someone in a discussion about this case so eloquently pointed out to Christians screaming “Majority rules!”: If you lived in a small town, and dozens of Muslim families quickly moved in and became the majority, should they have the right to post a prayer to Allah in the public school?
So yeah. To anyone with even the most basic understanding of civics and the Constitution, the court decision in favor of Jessica Ahlquist, ruling that her public high school could not have a banner in the school auditorium offering a prayer to the Christian god, was about as surprising as the fact that millions of people enjoy chocolate and think kittens are cute.
So why are so many people so enraged about it?
Have no doubt — people are enraged. Not just disappointed; not just upset. Enraged. Even before the judge’s decision, Jessica Ahlquist had been ostracized, bullied, and even occasionally threatened over her lawsuit. But when the court ruling came down last week, the climate of harassment and hostility against her escalated out of control, into widespread vilification, venomous bile, and explicit threats of violence, rape and death. Including the following:
“Let’s all jump that girl who did the banner #fuckthatho””I want to punch the girl in the face that made west take down the school prayer… #Honestly”
“hail Mary full of grace @jessicaahlquist is gonna get punched in the face”
“Fuck Jessica alquist I’ll drop anchor on her face”
“lol I wanna stick that bitch lol”
“We can make so many jokes about this dumb bitch, but who cares #thatbitchisgointohell and Satan is gonna rape her.”
“Brb ima go drown that atheist in holy water”
“”But for real somebody should jump this girl” lmao let’s do it!”
“shes not human shes garbage”
“wen the atheist dies, they believe they will become a tree, so we shld chop her down, turn her into paper then PRINT THE BIBLE ON HER.”
“May that little, evil athiest teenage girl and that judge BURN IN HELL!”
“definetly laying it down on this athiest tommorow anyone else?”
“yeah, well i want the immediate removal of all atheists from the school, how about that?”
“If this banner comes down, hell i hope the school burns down with it!”
“U little brainless idiot, hope u will be punished, you have not win sh..t! Stupid little brainless skunk!”
“Nothing bad better happen tomorrow #justsaying #fridaythe13th”
“How does it feel to be the most hated person in RI right now? Your a puke and a disgrace to the human race.”
“I think everyone should just fight this girl”
“I hope there’s lots of banners in hell when your rotting in there you atheist fuck #TeamJesus”
“literally that bitch is insane. and the best part is she already transferred schools because shes knows someone will jump her #ahaha”
“Hmm jess is in my bio class, she’s gonna get some shit thrown at her”
“gods going to fuck your ass with that banner you scumbag”
“I found it, what a little bitch lol I wanna snuff her”
“if I wasn’t 18 and wouldn’t go to jail I’d beat the shit out of her idk how she got away with not getting beat up yet”
“nail her to a cross”
“When I take over the world I’m going to do a holocaust to all the atheists”
Even her state representative, Rhode Island State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, has gotten into the act. He went onto WPRO talk radio to excoriate the ruling (saying, among other things, “we’re crucifying Jesus again”), and to mock and vilify Ahlquist, calling her a “pawn star” (that’s a 16-year-old girl we’re talking about), a “clapping seal,” and an “evil little thing” (later modified to “coerced by evil people”). (Slight tangent: It’s bad enough when ordinary citizens don’t understand enough Civics 101 to know that this ruling was not only correct but entirely uncontroversial. It’s much worse when this isn’t understood by a state representative, whose job it is to understand the law, and who took an oath to uphold the Constitution. Palumbo’s phone number, by the way, is (401) 785-2882 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (401) 785-2882 end_of_the_skype_highlighting, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org .)
What the hell is going on here?
Why has an entirely unsurprising court ruling — on a well-established point of law, based on one of the most fundamental rights established by our country’s Constitution, protecting everyone’s right to practice their religion without government pressure or interference — resulted in such grotesque, hateful, violently threatening rage aimed at a 16-year-old girl, simply for having the temerity to ask her public school to obey the law?
Some of it, of course, is Internet culture, and the anonymity that makes people feel comfortable saying horrible, cruel, threatening things they would probably never say in person. Some of it seems to stem from a grossly underfunded public education system, and the widespread piss-poor understanding of Civics 101 that apparently goes along with it. And some of it, of course, is just generic enforcement of conformity, and generic hostility aimed at anyone who steps outside social norms. (A tendency that’s especially prevalent in high school.)
But some of it seems to have to do with the unique nature of religion.
Religion, unlike any other belief system or social structure, is based on a belief in that which cannot be seen, felt, heard, touched, or otherwise detected by any normal or reliable means. It is based on ideas that have no good evidence to support them, and that by definition can’t have good evidence to support them.
And in a frustrating and exasperating paradox, when people hold beliefs we don’t have good evidence for, we have a strong tendency to defend them more vigorously, more vehemently, and in many cases more violently.
This is something Daniel Dennett pointed out in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. If you see that the sky is blue, and someone else says that it’s orange, you don’t feel a particularly passionate need to defend your position… because it’s freaking obvious that you’re right. You have an easy way of resolving the dispute, and the facts are clearly in your favor. But if you think that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that your faith in his divinity is required for you to get into Heaven — and someone else insists that no, Jesus Christ is not the son of God, there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet — you don’t have any way of resolving that dispute. Neither of you can point to any good evidence showing that one of you is probably right. All you have is your personal feelings and beliefs and wishful thinking, and the teachings of authorities who don’t have anything better to back up their ideas than you do.
So — paradoxically — the less good evidence we have for a belief, and the less defensible it is, the more vigorously we defend it.
And if that indefensible belief is important to us — if it’s a central part of our philosophy, our community’s culture, our consolation in the face of hardship, our deepest personal identity — our defense of it is likely to become even more vigorous. And our need to shut down any contradictory ideas becomes even more vehement. In some cases, to the point of ostracism, bullying, and outright threats of violence.
So when religion is questioned, and the privilege it enjoys is challenged, all too often the answer is, “Shut up.”
That is exactly what the bile and vilification and threats against Ahlquist are. They are not a serious attempt to engage with her on the question of separation of church and state, or even on the question of atheism and religion. They are an attempt to shut her up. They are an attempt to terrify her into silence. And they are an attempt to terrify anyone else into silence who dares to ask questions about religion, to challenge unjust religious privilege, and to insist that the government stay the hell out of their personal religious convictions.
So those of us who care about religious freedom — including the well-established freedom to not have our government impose religious views on us — need to speak out about it. Believers, atheists… everyone. We need to speak out about it. We need to act on it. And we need to support the organizations and the people who are defending it on the front lines, in the face of willfully ignorant and hideously cruel opposition.
(A college scholarship fund is being raised for Jessica Ahlquist on the Friendly Atheist blog. Donations of all sizes are welcomed through February 29.)