Jessica Ahlquist - A 16 Year-Old Constitutional Stalwart

Can you recall a time in your youth when you stood up for a Constitutional safeguard - and won against adults who threatened your rights and the rights of others? How about a time when you just stood up to a bully, politely objected to a convention that seemed unfair or took an unpopular position? Did you ever do anything like that - and persist in doing so even when faced with opposition from peers and adults? If so, good on you. You were heroic if you did anything like this. Doing is not easy or comfortable for an educated, secure adult - let alone a teenager. Such acts take courage. Let us admire and emulate as best we can those who defend what they believe is right and all who stand on principle when the majority acts badly.

In his book "Sincerely," the recently late Andy Rooney wrote, I'd be more willing to accept religion, even if I didn't believe it, if I thought it made people nicer to each other but I don't think it does."

Religious people are sometimes very unnice when they seek to promote their beliefs in the public square. Yet, the bad behavior of some Christians often reveals the presence of a few admirable cases of heroic behavior. All who support the Constitution's protection against compulsory religion can find inspiration in instances of courageous resistance to public piety.

One case where the Christian religion utterly failed the Andy Rooney acceptance test occurred recently in Rhode Island. A 16 year-old high school sophomore named Jessica Ahlquist took exception to a prayer banner in a public school auditorium. Unfortunately, the no-so-nice Christian defenders of the prayer banner subjected Miss Ahlquist to a flood of hatred, harassment and violent threats. They were outraged by the young woman's support of the Constitutional principle of church/state separation.

You can read a full account of the case and the vitriol associated with Christian behavior at the website Friendly Atheist.

You might also want to watch a video interview about the incident and/or read the judge's ruling on the case (a resounding victory for Miss Ahlquist and the Constitution).

While the behavior of Miss Ahlquist's peers raised to be good Christians was lamentable, bad behavior by teens is not so shocking. What percentage of young people can be expected to exbibit common decency or to resist established customs? Moral courage is not the norm with insecure, conformist adolescents. But adults? We expect more. Consider what Adam Lee of Daylight Activism wrote about the Rhode Island teachers, parents, school officials and the Christian community that lashed out, threatened and ostracized the banner-protesting student: "Their obnoxious public displays of religious beliefs did not improve their moral sentiments, it only multiplied their viciousness toward those who don't wear expected marks of tribal conformity ... What the religious bullies want is to force conformity - to make everyone think and behave like they do." I'm also reminded of a commentary by Niall Shanks in "God, the Devil and Darwin" (2004): “While we in the West readily point a finger at Islamic fundamentalism, we all too readily downplay the Christian fundamentalism in our own midst. The social and political consequences of religious fundamentalism can be enormous.”

Let's draw at least two lessons from Jessica's situation and behavior: 1) Celebrate moral courage at every opportunity. A few freethinking organizations are doing exactly that for Miss Ahlquist and other young people who have taken stands against Christian assaults on the establishment clause; and 2) consider that you are never too old to do the right thing. You may not get a college scholarship (or want or need one) but, win or lose in the near term, you will almost surely feel good about doing the right thing.

Stay well.


PZ Myers, who blogs at a website called "“Pharyngula” wrote the following sequel to this story:

 I had not realized how stupidly bigoted the people of Cranston, Rhode Island were becoming. After losing a fight against the Constitution, being slapped down for demanding the right to maintain a blatantly sectarian, religious prayer in a public school, they‚Äôve been threatening and persecuting Jessica Ahlquist, the atheist who was brave enough to bring the law to bear on the promotion of religious views in a school. Now a new development: the Freedom From Religion Foundation wanted to send flowers to Ahlquist: none of the florists in Cranston would do it. They had to find a florist in a more distant town to do the deed. It‚Äôs all shockingly petty and discriminatory.

PZ provided the websites for the four florists who would not deliver a bouquet to a teenage girl because she’s an atheist. These can be obtained at the site -

* Twins Florist

* Floral Express

* Flowers by Santilli

* Greenwood Flower

To his credit, PZ asked that, if you contact them in order to express your displeasure, please remember to be civil.