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.
Continuing the tradition of former Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) has introduced a resolution designating Charles Darwin's 204th birthday, Feb. 12, 2013, as Darwin Day. The resolution "recogniz[es] the importance of science in the betterment of humanity."
Holt was recently quoted in The New York Times as saying, "I hope we can hold hearings, where people can hear about Darwin and science and the jobs it creates, the lives it saves, everything."
Holt's resolution touts "the validity of Darwin's theory of evolution," "the monumental amount of scientific evidence" that supports the theory, and notes that evolution's "validity ... is further strongly supported by the modern understanding of the science of genetics."
The resolution chastises science-deniers: "the advancement of science must be protected from those unconcerned with the adverse impacts of global warming and climate change" and "the teaching of creationism in some public schools compromises the scientific and academic integrity of the United States education systems."
Our country faces a crisis of ignorance. To the shame of the United States' international standing, about half of Americans reject evolution. Globally the United States ranks just above Turkey in public acceptance of evolution. How can we compete in a global, technologically advanced community when a majority of U.S. citizens deny basic reality and embrace creationism?
The voices of science and secularism must be heard. Ask the U.S. House to hold Darwin Day hearings.
Take Action Today!
Contact your U.S. Representative to support the resolution and ask for hearings
To find out who your representative is, type in your zip code on this website http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ to find your representative. Click on their name to contact them.
If you already know who your representative is, find their contact information on this alphabetical list http://www.house.gov/representatives/
Call, email, fax, write, or Facebook them. Do whatever it takes to be heard!
Contact the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, where the bill was referred, to ask for a hearing.
House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX)
2321 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Thank Darwin Day Sponsors
Take a moment to thank Rep. Holt. Rep. Holt, a nuclear physicist by training, self-identifies as a Quaker and deserves our gratitude for his efforts. Do feel free to identify yourself as a nonbeliever, atheist, etc., so he knows the secular bloc has clout (and good manners)!
Letters: 1214 Longworth HOB
Washington DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-5801
Fax: (202) 225-6025
Webform: https://forms.house.gov/holt/webforms/issue_subscribe.htm (Representative Holt will only accept email from residents of New Jersey.)
While you're at it, thank Holt's cosponsors (especially if they represent you). They are:
Rep. Michael Honda (CA-17)
Rep. Edward Markey (MA-5)
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC)
Rep. Jared Polis (CO-2)
Rep. Louise Slaughter (NY-25)
(If your representative's name isn't on this list, ask why not!)
Contact your Senator
Ask your Senator to introduce a Darwin Day resolution, while you're at it!
Find and contact your U.S. Senators:
Write a letter to the editor
Supporting Darwin Day would make an excellent and timely topic of a letter to the editor to your local or favorite publication. Don't forget social media and online news comment sections to help spread the word.
Thank you for your activism. Freedom depends on freethinkers, and Darwin Day deserves your support!
Freedom From Religion Foundation
PO Box 750
Madison WI 53701
Email or phone the President today urging him as honorary president of Boy Scouts of America to support inclusion of gay and nonreligious members, volunteers and leaders.
The White House Comment Line: 202/456-1111
TTY/TTD Comment line: 202/456-6213
FFRF letter to President Barack Obama
re: BSA policy of exclusion
February 4, 2013
The Honorable Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500
Re: Nobody, including nonbelievers, ought to be barred by BSA
Dear Mr. President:
On behalf of our national membership of more than 19,000 freethinkers and families, we urge you to take this important opportunity to use your position as honorary president of Boy Scouts of America, as well as your moral "bully pulpit" as president of the United States, to ensure that BSA's advertised invitation that "Any boy may join" is indeed honored, by advocating for full membership inclusion in Boy Scouts of America.
As we applaud the willingness of the national board of Boy Scouts of America to reconsider its hurtful blanket exclusion of gays from membership, we must not forget that BSA has embraced exclusion of two minorities in our nation: gays and nonbelievers. You have commendably written, "The Scouts are a great institution that are promoting young people and exposing them to opportunities and leadership that will serve people for the rest of their lives. And I think nobody should be barred from that."
You are right — nobody deserves to be barred from that, including nonbelievers. With Pew and other surveys showing that one in five Americans — and as many as one in three young people — identify as nonreligious, clearly millions of nontheistic families and their sons are being labeled as persona non grata by BSA. It is not and should not be socially acceptable to exclude either gays or atheists.
BSA has falsely advertised that "any boy may join" and has often relied upon and received major governmental favors. Starting in the 1970s, discrimination against atheists became common, then entrenched as BSA adopted a religious litmus test, forcing parents of boys interested in joining to sign a "Declaration of Religious Principles" returned with membership fees. The declaration states: "The Boy Scouts of America maintain that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God."
BSA spokesperson Deron Smith publicly stated last week that a change in policy toward atheists is not being considered along with its change on gay membership, because "Duty to God" is one of BSA's basic principles. While it is true that BSA has been ruled to be a private club that may freely discriminate in its membership (however ugly that discrimination), it is unacceptable for our nation's highest executive office to be implicated even tacitly in lending moral support to such prejudice. Religious litmus tests are improper in a fraternal organization with a congressional charter.
Mr. President, as the child of a mother who was humanistic and secular, you know that no one can grow into the best kind of citizen being encouraged to discriminate against children born into nonbelieving families. As Piaget and others have established, children under 12 cannot fully comprehend abstractions, are not mature enough or conversant enough with conflicting religious teachings to have made up their own minds about religious claims. You know what BSA does not comprehend: that it is not what you believe that makes you a good person, but what you do. Professing an orthodox belief in an unprovable deity has nothing to do with ethical conduct. A Scout from an atheist home can help that senior across the street, raise money for causes, and earn merit badges for volunteerism just as ably as a Scout from a religious home. Wrapping oneself in a mantle of piety is often counterproductive of moral action, as witnessed by the way in which "duty to God" has been used by BSA to justify its exclusion of gays and atheists. Scouts religious or nonreligious, gay or straight, can get along. Emphasis upon religious differences builds walls between children.
It is reprehensible that BSA places loyalty to dogma over loyalty to children, teenagers and volunteer leaders. It is ignoble that teenagers, parents and adult volunteers are being shunned for holding the intellectually respectable position that they require proof and evidence before accepting dogmatic claims. What John Stuart Mill noted in 1873 is still true today: "The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments — of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue — are complete skeptics in religion."
The denial of membership has personally harmed and stigmatized not only gay but nontheist families and Scouts. (Many gays are nonbelievers who would still, on that score, be unwelcome in BSA.) Below is a recap of only a few of many instances of ostracism and discrimination on the basis of religion practiced in recent decades by local and national BSA leaders:
• Stripping model Boy Scout Darrell Lambert of Oregon of his Eagle Scout badge in 2002 because he is an atheist. Darrell was a Scouting and community volunteer who had won first place in his state athletic medicine competitions and volunteered as a search and rescue worker. He was singled out for his atheism by his district commissioner, who told the class an atheist cannot be a good citizen.
• Denying 6-year-old Mark Welsh of suburban Chicago of the right to join Tiger Cubs, after being solicited through his public school. When his father encountered the Declaration of Religious Principles and explained to BSA officials he could not in good conscience sign it, Mark was told he was an undesirable candidate and left the sign-up meeting in tears. Welsh's lawsuit under the Civil Rights Act was lost to BSA, which has vigorously defended its exclusionary policies in many court battles, including its exclusion of gays in a Supreme Court test.
• Twins William and Michael Randall were expelled with no warning from the Orange County Cub Scout pack despite three years of Scouting experience. The BSA appealed the Randalls' challenge under the California Unruh Civil Rights Act and won the right to expel the twins. An agnostic den leader who sent a supportive letter to the Randalls was expelled, a common practice against those within BSA who have protested bigotry at the national level.
BSA has deserved a badge of dishonor for its discriminatory practices. It is encouraging that BSA is taking its first steps toward more egalitarian practices, but it is equally important to point out that BSA's proposals do not go far enough.
We urge you to use your position as honorary president of BSA to lead the way toward an America "with liberty and justice for all."
May we hear from you at your earliest convenience?
Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker