The Internet makes for at once a terrifying and wonderful community.
Jessica Ahlquist made headlines this week when she (with the American Civil Liberties Union) won a lawsuit against Cranston High School West asking the school to remove a banner from the auditorium. Most of the news coverage doesn’t get specific, but here’s the complete text of the offending 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 with ourselves 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.
Ahlquist suggests this is a prayer and thus doesn’t belong in a public school. The school board saw the banner as purely historical (a gift from the class of 1962-1963) and secular anyway. The eagle-eyed judge deciding the case managed to spot the “Our Heavenly Father” at the top, the “Amen” at the bottom, and the fact that the text calls upon a higher power to grant these various laudable attributes.
Also, the title on the banner is “School Prayer”. That was probably a useful clue. Judge Ronald Lageux ruled (in a 40 page decision worth reading in full):
No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that. … 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.
Bringing the suit did nothing positive for Ahlquist’s social standing, and winning it didn’t help. Police have been investigating threats from social media (read the most wretched if you’re brave) and stepping up patrols around the school and her home. The court’s decision notes:
After Plaintiff’s public comments before the School Committee, and particularly after the lawsuit was filed, Plaintiff was subject to frequent taunting and threats at school, as well as a virtual on-line hate campaign via Facebook.
When the mayor spoke in the very auditorium and told students the banner should stay, Ahlquist reported feeling devalued, “horrible very uncomfortable, alone and isolated.”
Maybe we can help with that. Public tweets @JessicaAhlquist are now overwhelmingly positive. That’s a start. But wait, there’s more! Hemant Mehta, blogger at FriendlyAthiest.com, started a campaign to give Ahlquist a small college scholarship. This tangible show of support compensates someone who has suffered the hatred of ignorant religionists while standing up firmly for her beliefs. That must be taxing in a way we (who have not done it) can’t imagine. But I like MarcoVincenzo’s answer on Reddit best. Why give?
Because rewarding merit is the best way I know of to encourage others to emulate it. And, in a world of limited resources it’s better to focus those resources where they’ll do the most good rather than dilute them to the point where they can’t even be detected.
The American Humanist Association will keep the donated money in a trust fund. When I began researching this piece, the donated amount stood at $8,200. It climbed to $10,000 within hours and topped $12,000 by this morning. Would you care to give a dollar (via PayPal) to support the courage of a 16 year old high school student?
As one Redditor put it, “I was going to buy beer. I decided to spend $10 for this cause … I’m still going to buy beer.”