Jessica Ahlquist, plaintiff in a successful federal lawsuit challenging a prayer banner at her high school in Cranston, R.I., gave this speech [edited for print] October 12, 2012, at FFRF’s 35th national convention in Portland, Ore. Jessica stood tall in the face of adversity and became the first recipient of FFRF’s Atheists in Foxholes Support Fund, a $10,000 award. She also received two Thomas Jefferson Student Activist Awards (a $2,000 award in 2012 and a $1,000 award in 2011).
First, let me give my biggest thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and to everybody here, with special thanks to the Eisenbergs, who really help support students like Max and me. I can give you my thanks all day, but I will never be able to fully express how wonderful and supportive FFRF has been.
The story I am going to tell you was certainly no walk in the park for me, but it was made possible by the people who came to fight at my side, and that was Annie Laurie and Dan and all of you. You are some of the coolest, bravest people I’ve ever met.
Everything has changed for me in the last few years. I’d like to reflect on what’s happened. I was born and raised in Rhode Island. I started attending Cranston High School West when I was 14. Cranston and Rhode Island are overwhelmingly Catholic.
I always knew I wasn’t welcome to share my real beliefs and continued to call myself a Catholic until the day I came out as an atheist. Near the end of my freshman year in spring 2010, I saw the prayer banner [actually a painted mural] for the first time in the school auditorium. I knew almost immediately it was wrong to have it in a public school.
I thought of going to the principal’s office to remind him it was there. I did a lot of research on the Constitution and American history, and by the time I finally decided that I wanted to report this to the school administration, school had already gotten out for the year.
But that summer, a private group rented out the auditorium for a recital. The mother of one of the girls in the recital noticed the prayer. As a secular Jew, it was unsettling for her. Her mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, was also in the audience. (And they don’t tell this in school, but Hitler was a Catholic.) The mother decided to write to the America Civil Liberties Union, which sent a letter to the school that the prayer needed to be removed because it violated the Constitution.
That summer the school committee [of the city of Cranston, i.e., the school board] put together a subcommittee to discuss its options. Of course there really weren’t options. In this country, we vote on many things, but we don’t vote on people’s rights — we do, but we shouldn’t.
The subcommittee scheduled public meetings. I was so happy and relieved. I thought, “How awesome, now I don’t have to do anything.” But I was really invested and I wanted to reach out to that mother and show her that she wasn’t the only person who felt the way she did about the prayer.
I didn’t know the atheist community existed. I didn’t know what the ACLU was. So I did the only thing I could think of. I created a Facebook group specifically about removing the prayer. I would come home every day to see if anyone had joined, and no one did for months. But I was excited and really wanted someone to join my group.
In November 2010, the school committee had a second public meeting. I was naïve. I believed that when I got to the meeting, these educated administrators and lawyers and politicians were going to say, “Oh, we forgot it was there. We’ll take it down because of course that’s illegal.”
Only about 15 people were there. I’ve absolutely hated public speaking all my life, but I was so upset and confused by what people were claiming about our country’s history and Constitution that I decided that I had to speak. I was literally shaking, and my voice was so soft it’s amazing that people were even able to hear me.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, someone let out an audible gasp and another person whispered, “That little witch.” I was shocked, intimidated and scared, but I was also really angry. The people that followed me to speak were lying through their teeth.
I had said that the prayer didn’t follow the concept of separation of church and state, that in this case, prayer was the church and school was the state. I thought that was pretty simple, but a priest smirked at me and said “Honey, Russia had state schools; we certainly don’t want that.”
It made me so angry that I decided to speak again that night. I noticed how good it felt to say, “I don’t believe in God” and to just let them squirm and to not care.
No more pretense
I’d been pretending all my life. That night a video camera was stuck in my face and I was on the local news, just for being an atheist. It’s really that easy. I’d honestly thought the meeting was just a formality, that no one would actually say the prayer should stay up because they’re educated adults and stuff.
But I learned what easily was the biggest lesson I learned in all of this: There’s a difference between an adult and a grownup.
I went online and found my Facebook group had exploded in a few hours. Over 150 people had joined and were wishing me support. The group eventually reached over 6,000 members. That’s a big part of how I got through this.
The average high schooler doesn’t exactly watch the news and keep up-to-date with what’s going on in their community, so few people in school knew what was happening and no one really brought it up. But silly me, hearing about our rights, I kept researching and speaking at meetings to convince them to remove it. That’s when everything started getting crazy.
The next meeting in February 2011 was much larger, maybe a hundred people. I don’t think most of them knew why they were there because a lot of them were talking about abortion and America’s borders and random stuff, the economy. An older woman said how prayers in school remind kids to be good and not get pregnant. She pursed her lips and looked over at my friend and me.
At the last meeting in March, the full school committee voted 4-3 to keep the prayer up. Over 250 people attended and all but six were wearing signs that said “Keep original banner.” I was devastated.
Just because some people tried to vote on my rights does not mean I was going to settle for that. I was faced with this issue and decided to see it through. With help from the ACLU, I filed a lawsuit, Ahlquist v. City of Cranston in April 2011.
The morning after we filed, I came into homeroom, like I do every day. The morning announcements came on and everyone rose to say the Pledge of Allegiance. During the appropriate moment, all of the students turned and screamed “under God” at me. I was actually surprised by that but I should have expected it. The teacher did nothing. I knew that reporting it was useless because most of the administration hated me anyway. From that morning on, I refused to say the pledge, refused to take part in something used as a weapon.
It’s utterly sick that on the first day of kindergarten, 5-year-olds memorize how to pledge their allegiance. They don’t know what allegiance means. And, as I’m sure you know, “under God” wasn’t even added until the 1950s.
The administration and members of my community were inexcusably unconcerned about my daily treatment and often made things even worse. During diversity week, the school has little presentations about discrimination — bullying, racial topics, etc. The diversity week team invited the mayor, Allan Fung, to speak about minorities and how as a Chinese American, he had succeeded in the world of politics.
After he finished giving his nice little speech, someone asked, “How do you feel about the prayer?” We were in the auditorium, and he pointed to it and said, “I want to see that prayer stay exactly where it is. I have a law degree. This doesn’t discriminate against anyone and I’m Catholic.”
The students jumped up, cheering and clapping. Then an autistic student raised his hand and tried to explain why the prayer was illegal. The mayor just kind of dismissed him, and none of the 10 or so teachers in the room offered to let me leave or do anything to calm anyone down. I had to sit there and let them all stare at me for the rest of the presentation.
One day in English class, my friend’s boyfriend texted her to tell her that they were debating “the prayer.” Kids in his class were threatening to beat me and my friend up. We’ve been best friends since seventh grade. I think her parents blame me for her being an atheist. This obviously scared us, so we went to guidance and got dismissed early from school.
There were afternoons when I would come home crying. Acquaintances wanted nothing to do with me. I didn’t even see my friends very much, because even though they still liked me, they didn’t want people to hate them for associating with me.
Even just walking down the hall to use my locker was a struggle because people would yell things and stop me in the hallway. But things would get much, much worse.
I received a phone call in January from Steven Brown, the executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU. He simply said, “Hey Jess, we won.”
I was so thrilled I said, “Shut up” to this esteemed lawyer. More than excited though, I was relieved to have won the lawsuit, but more relieved that it was finally over. This nightmare experience was done, and everyone could forget about what happened and go on as normal. But that’s not what happened.
The very night I won, the craziness started. People took to social media to express their sincerest hate toward me. Twitter and Facebook absolutely exploded with death threats and rape threats and other terrible things.
My favorite, and I mean that ironically of course, was “OMG she is almost as bad as blacks.”
Kids whom I had known since kindergarten were threatening my life and insulting my character, saying I was a freak and should die. People said I should be gang-raped and my family should lose their home and live out of boxes in the street.
Some of the kids warned me they were going to throw things at me if I came to class. Other people claimed to know license plate numbers of the cars my family members drove. My home address was posted online. I have an 11-year-old brother and a 7-year-old brother whom I worried about every single day.
I have a little sister who’s 15 whom I worried about the whole time I was in class because these people seemed to have no limits.
One day I was walking up my driveway and a group of kids drove by screaming out the window that they hoped I burn in hell. They had followed me home. The threats became so terrible, in fact, that the city decided to provide me with police officers who followed me around from class to class every single day for weeks.
I don’t need to explain to you how that made learning and having a normal high school experience impossible. The community as a whole was doing everything it could to make me feel hated and out of place. They wanted me to leave and literally said “Get the hell out of here.”
There was this organization that tried to send me flowers, the Freedom From Religion Foundation or something like that [laughter]. They contacted four different flower shops and they all refused to send me flowers. But you know, Annie Laurie and Dan don’t give up, and they were mad and eventually found a flower shop in Connecticut [Glimpse of Gaia] that agreed to send me, the “evil little Satan girl,” flowers.
The atheist community was so glad that someone had not been a bigoted jerk that they sent me so many flowers that I was not able to see my floor. I’m amazed that I didn’t suffocate in my sleep. The owners are really nice people, and they recorded something like “We’re thankful for the business and praise, but this is our job. We don’t need to be praised for not discriminating against people.”
I know them personally now. They are really good people and I believe they’re atheists, too.
‘Evil little thing’
Of course you all know about “evil little thing.” [Democratic state Rep. Peter Palumbo called her that on a radio show.] I can’t seem to get away from that. I was actually introduced as an “evil little thing” at the Reason Rally in front of 25,000 people. They presented me with a check for $60,000. That was a scholarship fund that Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, started so that I can go to college.
It was really meaningful to have the people who had donated in front of me. JT Eberhard had made “evil little thing” T-shirts to sell, with the profit going to my scholarship fund. I thank all of you who did that for me. That’s one of the greatest things that has come of all of this.
Eventually, the subcommittee held the final meeting to discuss whether to appeal our victory. In the weeks leading up to that meeting, my wonderful uncle Steve (who everyone thinks is my father) and who founded the Humanists of Rhode Island, sent out email and Facebook alerts and did everything he could to explain that we really need people to come to this meeting to show support for the court’s ruling.
The school was already in debt and had spent over $100,000 on this lawsuit, paying my lawyers because they had won. And, of course, who got blamed for the cost of the lawsuit? I did.
My uncle was successful though. People even came from out of state, driving for hours just to be at that one meeting. They stood out in the rain just so we could all get into the meeting.
Police searched the building for bombs before the meeting. I’m not kidding; it was that ridiculous. There were hundreds of people, and it was just as hilarious as it was scary. There were signs everywhere, screaming people, lunatics, all you can imagine.
After hours and hours of people speaking — it was more people on our side than the other side this time — they decided not to appeal. The vote was 5-2. We won, and it’s over now!
The hate continued for a little while after that. Overall, I came out of this far more positive than negative. The support I received was infinitely stronger than the hate.
Again, thank you for all of that. This is a great group of people, and I’m so glad for this community because they’ve given me a lot more than I would have expected.