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The Best Parts of the Jessica Ahlquist Court Decision

I just finished a piece for AlterNet about the recent court decision in favor of Jessica Ahlquist, the one ruling that Cranston High School West could not have a freaking prayer banner posted in their auditorium. (I’ll post a link as soon as it goes up.) I’ve been reading the actual court decision — something most of the people vehemently decrying this decision and calling for Jessica’s blood have conspicuously failed to do. And I wanted to pull out what I thought were some of the best, most pertinent, most beautiful, most damning, and most flat-out inspiring pieces of the ruling. Kudos to U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux.

BTW, a link to a PDF with the entire ruling can be found on the Friendly Atheist blog. (I’d link to it myself, but I have some odd holes in my tech knowledge, and “how to post/ link to a PDF” is one of them.)

And for those who don’t already know about this: There’s a college scholarship fund being raised for Ahlquist, also on the Friendly Atheist blog. Ahlquist is an incredibly tough and brave young woman, who has been fighting firmly and powerfully for separation of church and state in the face of unbelievably ugly and hateful vilification, ostracism, and threats of violence and death. If you want to show your support for her, please consider contributing. Donations of all sizes are welcomed through February 29.

And now — Ahlquist v. City of Cranston, the greatest hits!

No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that. Its opening, calling upon the “Heavenly Father,” is an exclusively Christian formulation of a monotheistic deity, leaving out, inter alia, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists alike. The Prayer concludes with the indisputably religious closing: “Amen;” a Hebrew word used by Jews, Christians and Muslims to conclude prayers. In between, the Prayer espouses values of honesty, kindness, friendship and sportsmanship. While these goals are commendable, the reliance on God’s intervention as the way to achieve those goals is not consistent with a secular purpose.

The Court refrains from second-guessing the expressed motives of the committee members, but nonetheless must point out that tradition is a murky and dangerous bog. 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. The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular.

The Prayer Mural espouses important moral values, yet it does so in the context of religious supplication. The retention of the Prayer Mural is no doubt a nod to Cranston West’s tradition and history, yet that nod reflects the nostalgia felt by some members of the community who remember fondly when the community was sufficiently homogeneous that the religion of its majority could be practiced in public schools with impunity.

When focused on the Prayer Mural, the activities and agenda of the Cranston School Committee became excessively entangled with religion, exposing the Committee to a situation where a loud and passionate majority encouraged it to vote to override the constitutional rights of a minority.

…the School Committee endorsed the position of those who believe that it is acceptable to use Christian prayer to instill values in public schoolchildren; a decision that clearly placed the ‘nonadherents’ outside of the political community.

And finally: This, this, a hundred times this:

Plaintiff is clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community.

Hell to the yes. Ahlquist is indeed an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand. The atheist community — and anyone who cares about the principle that government should stay out of people’s private religious convictions — owes her an enormous debt of gratitude.

Comments

  1. SAWells says

    I think “tradition is a murky and dangerous bog” is a phrase with all kinds of religion-relevant applications. Steal steal steal :)

  2. says

    You haven’t really made it until you have a legal precedent that describes you as “clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community.”

  3. says

    Reading the full legal opinions is something that most Americans just don’t do enough, no matter your perspective, religion, political ideology, etc. Sometimes it can be long and boring, and there may be a flood of legalese that is difficult to translate without training. This allows room for commentators to “interpret” the document according to their own leanings before delivering it to their respective audiences.

  4. BentleyOwen says

    My favorite part:

    “The retention of the Prayer Mural is no doubt a nod to Cranston West’s tradition and history, yet that nod reflects the nostalgia felt by some members of the community who remember fondly when the community was sufficiently homogeneous that the religion of its majority could be practiced in public schools with impunity.”

    So even if you concede that the “tradition” defense is valid, you can point out that the tradition being celebrated is not a positive one. That’s an important insight by Lageaux.

  5. Jurjen S. says

    I love the phrase “the nostalgia felt by some members of the community who remember fondly when the community was sufficiently homogeneous that the religion of its majority could be practiced in public schools with impunity”; it subtly makes the point that, just because nobody complained about it before, doesn’t mean that the banner wasn’t illegal the second it was put up.

  6. Makoto says

    Thanks for posting about the college fund, I hadn’t seen that before and needed to contribute. I can’t wait to see where she goes in her future. Destined for greatness, as the saying goes? No. She’ll make her own greatness, and I want to see where it leads.

  7. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    Plaintiff is clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community.

    I wish I’d known the judge had said this when I wrote to Ahlquist’s state representative.

  8. says

    Great post, Greta.

    I don’t know how you upload a PDF at FTB, but something I’ve done in the past was upload it to my Google Docs, and then use that link to share it.

  9. Matt Penfold says

    One thing I liked about the written ruling is how the judge seems to have anticipated every single objection I have heard coming from those who want the prayer to stay up. It is just pity none of them seem to have bothered reading it, but then it does have a few big words in it, and no pictures.

  10. piero says

    What a gem! This ruling made my day, especially the praise towards Jessica. She is indeed intelligent, articulate and brave.

  11. hiro says

    I read the judge’s decision over the weekend and saved a copy on my computer. I was totally blown away by his articulation of the points. My hat is off to him.

  12. says

    I read the whole decision the other day. It was a delight of clear and concise reasoning–all forty pages of it.

    This Court has tried to resist the temptation of injecting lofty rhetoric into this opinion, but nonetheless was moved by the words, as quoted in Schempp, of Roger Williams, the founder of our state, who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony in pursuit of religious liberty.

    There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or human combination, or society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked on one ship; upon which supposal, I affirm that all the liberty of conscience I ever pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges, that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.

  13. says

    To link to the pdf, right click the link at the Friendly Atheist, click ‘Copy link location’ (wording varies with browser) and make a link in the usual way, pasting the copied link in as usual:

    <a href="http://wp.patheos.com.s3.amazonaws.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/files/2012/01/ahlquist_decision_011112.pdf">Direct link to the pdf.</a>

    Direct link to the pdf.

    How to post a copy, I’m not sure; it’ll depend on FTB’s set up. In WordPress, one just uploads it to ‘Media’ and links to it like any other file.

  14. Stonyground says

    This seems to have answered my question about how such things got put up in the first place when they are so obviously illegal. The judge referred to a time when pretty much everyone was a Christian and so there was no-one who could possibly object.

    Interesting that the prayer was for, among other things, kindness and friendship, judging by the hostile and vindictive response of the loving Christian community, it would appear to me that the prayer hasn’t worked.

  15. Rich Wilson says

    The sad part is how many people who think they know everything about the case haven’t read the decision. And how many are too scared to criticize the judge, so make veiled threats to a 16 year old (articulate and courageous) young woman instead.

  16. says

    Rich Wilson

    The sad part is how many people who think they know everything about the case haven’t read the decision.

    Maybe all legal documents should end with a tldr:

    tldr: It’s illegal. Get over it, already.

  17. andrea says

    I wonder, will the school board put up another banner that extolls “honesty, kindness, friendship and sportsmanship” in a non-religious manner or will they demonstrate that they have none of those good values?

    oh yes, they’ve already shown that they don’t.

  18. Ellis Weiner says

    Just read the piece on AlterNet. Well done–her, you, the judge. It would be interesting–if that’s the word–to sit down with some of the students who wrote such vile things, and ask them if they truly, truly believe that Jessica will go to Hell and they will go to Heaven when they die. And, if so, why. And if they consider themselves Christians. And, if so, why their behavior is so un-Christian.

  19. Dr. Pablito says

    Thanks for the linky links. I really enjoy reading court decisions, and I agree that more people should read them. They are absolutely menat for ordinary people to read — they’re public documents. It was my parents who encouraged me to actually read court decisions, rather than just have some dumb, kneejerk opinion about them. And it seems really typical for the right-wind christians to omit reading the decision — after all, they don’t really even read the Buy-bull, either. They usually depend on someone else reading it for them and telling them what it all means, and they think they know what’s in it, but they actually don’t. And Boo-Yah to Ms. Ahlquist. What a hero. Excellent American citizen. +20 civic engagement points.

  20. Nancie says

    The school was given the option of changing the wording to make the banner secular. Not to hard to do. Change School “prayer” to School Code of Honor, or School “motto”, lose the “Amen” Take out the “Heavenly Father” change “Grant us” to “May we Strive to . . .” and maybe a few other tweeks. They were given that option, along with the option to post other view points alongside the banner, but they REFUSED.

    Seems to me, they would rather Keep the “School Prayer”, “Heavenly Father” and “Amen” and ditch the content of the prayer, because judging from their behavior, they are not being good sports, being kind, or growing morally.

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