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The loving veneer comes off

January 21, 2012

Cranston High School vs US Law and a courageous student

At Cranston West high school in Rhode Island, an atheist student named Jessica Ahlquist requested that her school administration remove a prayer banner that had hung in the gym for some thirty years. While the banner had a positive message, she said, it was couched in religious terms that excluded people of non-Christian religion, and also atheists. By no small amount of case law, that is illegal.

Her request was refused, and was followed by school board and town meetings that, in the words of the case judge, “resembled revival meetings”. This did not help their claim that the banner was, in fact, somehow secular. The judge ruled as expected in favor of Ms. Ahlquist and the ACLU. That’s the pro-forma part.

Then the really interesting part began.

Jessica had to leave Cranston High* under a storm of threats and invective. I’m talking actual death threats, rape threats, and death-plus-eternal-rape threats. No, I’m not making this up; I wish I were. On Facebook, Twitter, in blogs and discussion groups, and even letters to the editor, it was painfully obvious this young woman simply wouldn’t be safe at Cranston High. Police finally began investigating some of the threats but there are too many to follow up on.

Rhode Island congressman Peter Palumbo, pandering to the majority, called her “an evil little thing“.

Prayer banner at Cranston West high school in Rhode Island

Prayer banner at Cranston West high school in Rhode Island (Does anyone know who I can credit for this photo?)

When the FFRF tried to send flowers to Jessica, two florists in town simply refused.

At a school committee meeting, one of her 16-year-old friends stood up to give an explanation and was booed by the “adults” present.

Would this be a good time to look at the content of the prayer? Why yes, it would.

They seem to be having a little problem “smiling when they lose”. Or showing any of the positive attributes advocated in the banner.

My point here isn’t that “All Christians are big fat poopyheads”, because there’s plenty of counterexamples to that.  No, I’m trying to show that tribalism is an easy trap for anyone to fall into, and most people do. And almost every atrocity ever committed in the history of humanity was a manifestation of tribalism, whatever label it was given at the time.  And that our secular constitution was an attempt to light a path beyond tribalism, which is also known as “exceptionalism”.

Someone asked me what I want Christians to do in these all-too-common cases. I want to see Christian leaders get up in front of cameras and microphones, and look into the camera with steely determination and ask their fellow Christians: “What the hell is wrong with you? Do you think we need the Government to protect our religion? Do we even want the government involved in our religion? Do you think it serves the Prince Of Peace to threaten a high school student?”

It doesn’t do much good for me to say these things – I’m just a filthy atheist. But a popular Christian minister could straighten out this travesty real quick if he or she wanted to. Can you guess what conclusion I draw from the fact that they don’t?

Here’s the short version of US law:

It pretty much amounts to this: Religious expression is allowed in schools, but not by schools. Or by any government agency: religion is a private-citizen thing. Schools can teach citizenship, ethics, morals, even manners, but not religion. Students are free to be as religious as they like, but teachers, when acting as representatives of the school, must be secular. You can read the judge’s excellent opinion here.

I’m still trying to figure out what’s so damn complicated about that, or why Christians get so upset when they can’t get an unconstitutional government endorsement of their religion.

NOTES and updates

  • Author of the Cranston High school prayer outraged - be sure to scroll down and listen to the interview with Jessica. Keep reminding yourself she is only 17 years old, because she speaks with more clarity and maturity than her critics.
  • Early reports that Jessica was leaving Cranston high were not correct: she is staying. She has said she intends to graduate from there. Read the threats against her linked above and then imagine going to classes every day, the lunch room… that is courage.
  • Author of Cranston High banner lashes out at Jessica Ahlquist – in a new editorial he… well you just have to go read it. He’s really something, that fellow.

If the picture is not showing up, here’s the text of the prayer banner:

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 withourselves 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 true friendship. Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West. AMEN

Only slight edits would be required to make it constitutionally acceptable.


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 21, 2012 at 12:46 | #1

    One tiny little thing–your last sentence. Instead of “would be”, it is sadly “would have been”. That ship has sailed; the board had that option and turned it down. Now the order is to take it down. (Besides, in the meeting after the decision, speakers brought up this possibility, and were booed.)

    • January 24, 2012 at 12:41 | #2

      I must be missing something. The way your post reads, it sounds as though the school board had the opportunity to re-word the prayer, and turn it into a secular creed of sorts.(Which I feel could easily be done) Is this correct? If so, why would those pinheads go the route they did? Seems to me they would rather have lost the verdict, and demonized Jessica than to “give in” to a reasonable, secular ideology.

      • decrepadmin
        January 24, 2012 at 21:57 | #3

        I don’t think you missed anything.

  2. January 21, 2012 at 17:45 | #4

    In some ways, I think the most telling thing about Christianity — about Christianity as a religion with pretensions of providing remarkable moral guidance — is that in cases like this one there are few to no Christian holy men who know what is right and who are willing to commit themselves to doing what is right.

    It’s a good thing most Christians are better than their religion.

  3. Ellie
    January 22, 2012 at 05:45 | #5

    I have been following this since I first read about it. I am deeply ashamed of the actions of those who purport to be my fellow Christians. I am further righteously angry with the Christian ministers in that town, who are not preaching against these actions from the rooftops. Jesus had something to say about them…something to do with whitened sepulchres.

    • Kate
      January 22, 2012 at 14:08 | #6

      Ellie, have you contacted the Christian ministers in that town to tell them what you think?

      (BTW, it’s “whited” sepulchres.)

      • decrepadmin
        January 22, 2012 at 14:33 | #7

        That’s a wonderful idea. They clearly wouldn’t listen to me, but if Christians from all over the country contacted them…

        (For those who have not read that still-relevant Jesus rant, enjoy – Matthew 23-27. Link shows many translations)

    • decrepadmin
      January 26, 2012 at 09:55 | #8

      Somewhat belatedly, some religious leaders have stepped up to the plate to condemn the threats and abuse that Jessica has endured.

  4. RGKahn
    January 22, 2012 at 08:44 | #9

    It seems to me that leaving the “our heavenly father in the beginning and amen at the close would have allowed the new banner to stay there for another 30 years without changing the message.

    • dyz
      January 22, 2012 at 11:27 | #10

      Thank you, exactly. The goals mentioned on the banner are admirable for any group or individual. Why we Christians think we have the lock on good behavior I’ll never know.

    • WeeDram
      January 22, 2012 at 14:52 | #11

      And the AMEN at the end.

    • January 25, 2012 at 22:22 | #12

      “It seems to me that leaving the “our heavenly father in the beginning and amen at the close would have allowed the new banner to stay there for another 30 years without changing the message.”

      Is that a problem anyway? Why do people criticize almost everything. Why can’t they just listen to it. It’s not about the words or even religion, it’s about faith.

  5. January 22, 2012 at 09:52 | #13

    It’s such a thin veneer …

  6. Jscott
    January 22, 2012 at 10:27 | #14

    Apart from the obvious violation of the separation clause, this so-called prayer makes a mockery of punctuation.

    Don’t they teach sentence structure at this school?

    • Hieronymus Illinensis
      January 22, 2012 at 14:24 | #15

      No, on the banner those *are* commas where commas should be. (See how they descend a bit below the baseline?) The transcription incorrectly renders them as periods.

  7. donquijoterocket
    January 22, 2012 at 10:43 | #16

    @Jscott- someone’s going to ask you if you’re the spelling,punctuation, or grammar Nazi. I generally ask such folks why, if I can’t rely on someone to get small details of their supposed native language correct, I should rely on them to get the larger details of their argument and evidence correct.

    • January 22, 2012 at 11:12 | #17

      Competence with one’s native language does not go hand in hand with the veracity or power of one’s persuasive arguments. That is just being a snob. However, this particular prayer really is appalling in its sloppiness. It goes far beyond being a little rough around the edges and just plain ignores sentence structure.

  8. Carol Anne
    January 22, 2012 at 10:51 | #18

    This proves, conclusively, that Religions (and, especially Christianity) is a marketing scam: They convince you that things you will do naturally (e.g., having a ‘dirty’ thought) is “sin,” then promise you that your sole salvation is to join their cult.

    That’s why no “Christian leader” will stand up in the face of this kind of immoral behavior and ask “What’s wrong with you”: It would undermine their marketing campaign! They have to have “sinners” to keep their flock in line, and groupthink to keep them from straying.

  9. SoVeryConfused
    January 22, 2012 at 11:16 | #19


    Yep, and I would respond that even with the slightly higher content of information entropy due to grammatical errors, the meaning of each phrase is clear. You need to never again use your ‘argument from perfection.’ It allows others to use the same argument against you. However, thanks for playing.

    @Carol Anne:

    A marketing scam? How so? And, in any event, a completely different question from this post. The point of the poster is that it is tribalism driving this reaction, not Christianity. And, I might add, in this I agree with him/her.

    Tribalism is not specific to Christianity. Look at how the South is still trying to win the Civil War. Look at how Saddam Hussein used only family and close tribal members for all positions of power. Look at how non-contacted tribes in South America react when first contacted. Tribalism is a powerful force within all humans (although stronger in some like, say, members of the GOP), throughout all of human existence. It’s not just religious in nature.

    • Sparrow
      January 22, 2012 at 12:25 | #20

      Indeed. Tribalism is a huge problem and can be seen in any group. That includes the “new atheists” who see everyone who doesn’t think the way they do as stupid and god-bothered.

      • January 22, 2012 at 13:02 | #21

        True, tribalism is a problem in any, well, tribe. However, as it pertains to religions, the stakes become celestial and eternal, and that leads to a lot of people justifying some heinous things quite readily. The fact is while new atheists can sometimes school like fish, they are not piranhas. They would not threaten a teenage girl with being raped to death for pointing out reality. Nothing gets a community baying for blood like religious faith.

        • decrepadmin
          January 22, 2012 at 14:12 | #22

          @JohnMWhite, I’d be happy to agree that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the atheist community, if there hadn’t been a recent counterexample. On the bright side, there was a swift and highly vocal leadership reaction against it and the offenders know they’re not supported in their awful behavior.

          @Sparrow – strong disagreement and argument do not, in themselves, equal tribalism. I went from being a plain ol’ atheist to a “new atheist” (silly term) when I’d had just-about-enough-thank-you of being told that I wasn’t a full citizen, a worthwhile human with a meaningful existence, or capable of morals, just because I can’t believe a delusional bronze-age myth.

          Tribalism flourishes when any group starts cheating in the marketplace of ideas. Violence is a cheat. Lying is a cheat. Government endorsement of your tribe is a cheat. Censorship is a cheat. Hypocrisy is a cheat. Making fun of ideas you think are delusional? Not a cheat.

          • January 23, 2012 at 12:22 | #23

            “On the bright side, there was a swift and highly vocal leadership reaction against it and the offenders know they’re not supported in their awful behavior.”

            Isn’t that a demonstration that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the atheist community? If offenders are clearly told they won’t be supported in their awful behaviour, that’s the opposite of tribalism. Though I’m not sure to which incident you are referring.

        • decrepadmin
          January 24, 2012 at 07:19 | #24

          “Isn’t that a demonstration that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the atheist community? If offenders are clearly told they won’t be supported in their awful behaviour, that’s the opposite of tribalism. Though I’m not sure to which incident you are referring.”

          You are right, it is a demonstration that we have some self-correction going on, even though people do act badly. I’m referring to an incident on Reddit where a teenage girl was showing off a copy of Demon Haunted World that her Christian mom gave her for her birthday. Several putative atheists made horrible, threatening sexist comments about her – the thread went on for hundreds of comments with plenty of “likes” on the worst ones. There were some very ill-behaved fish in that school but the good news is the leadership response was swift and unequivocal in condemning it.

          Even Richard Dawkins, when he once made some sexist comments, was condemned for it by some of his good friends – who remained friends afterward. And after Christopher Hitchens died, disagreement with his support for the Iraq war didn’t. To me this means we have no Pope, no “holy” leaders who must be defended at all costs, which is a GOOD thing. Dawkins, Hitchens, Myers… they can be right about some things and wrong about others.

    • WeeDram
      January 22, 2012 at 14:55 | #25

      @SoVeryConfused: Have you seen how much wealth tribal leaders (whether religious or not,) amass? That’s marketing.

  10. Mark Hatton
    January 22, 2012 at 12:15 | #26

    As an ordained interfaith Minister and as a licensed psychologist I can only say


    (in the secular and religious sense) to the travesty vested upon that young woman (and like deadly second-hand smoke, upon all in that community).

  11. January 22, 2012 at 12:57 | #27

    Judism, Christianity, and Islam are lies used primarily to control a bunch of mutated chimpanzees with language skills. That’s not an insult (unless you choose to take it as such).

    It’s a fact.

    • January 22, 2012 at 13:09 | #28

      Lies suggest an intent to mislead. I think part of the problem is that faith is so entrenched and has grown in such an organic fashion that it soon cannot be separated from any intention with which it was created. The good Christians harassing a school student and throwing tantrums over law being pointed out to them are in all likelihood honest and earnest in their faith – they just are so wrapped up in it they are incapable of seeing that they consistently betray it with their behaviour. What it is and says no longer matters. She’s challenged it and thus they react with instinctual aggression.

      Long story short, they don’t think. And I struggle to come up with a way to phrase it that doesn’t dehumanise them for it.

      • decrepadmin
        January 22, 2012 at 14:26 | #29

        “And I struggle to come up with a way to phrase it that doesn’t dehumanise them for it.”

        Very. Well. Said. And may I add: “and yet which doesn’t understate the exasperation I feel when they make me out to be some kind of villain for not believing.”

        When the Christian Tribal reaction to even very mild atheist expression (bus ads, anyone?) makes it clear that even our existence is taken as offensive, how can real discussion take place?

        • January 23, 2012 at 12:24 | #30

          I like your addition. Definitely helps clarify what I’m thinking.

  12. WeeDram
    January 22, 2012 at 14:49 | #31

    “I’m still trying to figure out what’s so damn complicated about that, or why Christians get so upset when they can’t get an unconstitutional government endorsement of their religion.”

    Easy. Fear

  13. Peter Everts
    January 23, 2012 at 14:26 | #32

    If there were a god, he would have fried the bigots in their tracks and congratulated this young woman for having a brain. Religion is a boil on humanities ass.

    • decrepadmin
      January 24, 2012 at 07:28 | #33

      Another possibility is that there IS a god, who has gone to great lengths to hide his existence, and intends to reject people who believe in him without evidence. People who went against their whole societies to disbelieve in him and find another basis for morality… might be his favorite kind.

      Makes more sense than sending people to Hell for disbelieving when there’s no evidence for him.

      Or maybe there’s some truth to George Carlin’s religion: Frisbeeterianism, in which when you die your soul goes up on the roof and you can’t get it back.

  14. January 25, 2012 at 13:30 | #34

    Hi Decrepit
    I am far to stoopid for religion.
    Be good and you can’t be be good at it.

    I am hitting 200,000 visits in the next 20 hours or so.
    If you’re no is no 200,000 I will spend a whole post slagging you and why you should not be the next president. Now that is worth more than 200,000 of Sierra Leone, leones.
    So as they say in Chicago and Freetown, visit soon and visit again and again.

  15. January 25, 2012 at 14:57 | #35

    Ta for the comment George.
    The bots got the 200 tag but as a conscilation prize a I will slag you soon. OK?
    So soon you will have a million peeps looking Up/Down at yew

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