The Bravest, Smartest Girl In Rhode Island

The Providence Journal profiles the student behind the Cranston first amendment case; I’d be awfully proud of her if she were my kid.

As a high school freshman, Jessica Ahlquist wore shiny braces, read books and never missed an episode of “Dr. Who,” a TV show about a time-traveling alien who saves civilizations, helps people and rights wrongs.

“I was very shy,” says the 5-foot-tall student.

Hardly anyone noticed her — until she spotted a school prayer affixed to a wall in the auditorium of her new school, Cranston High School West.

She recognized that the mural violated the establishment clause, and began speaking about it at school meetings.

“I didn’t want to talk. I was terrified of saying I was an atheist. When I spoke, I heard a gasp. I knew then that people didn’t share my beliefs. It was an unwelcoming atmosphere. People belittled me and treated me like a little kid.”

She stuck to her guns, showing more intelligence and considerably more courage than her detractors, whose actions say this is a religious fight, but whose rhetoric claims it is an attempt to preserve the school’s traditions and not cave in “because one person in the history of the school objects.”

In this attempt to preserve the school’s traditions…

Since then, she says, students and adults have called her a “stupid atheist,” an ACLU tool, a witch and a “media whore.” They’ve also threatened her through e-mails or at school, she says.

A former classmate told her that, if she knew what he really thought of her, she would kill herself, she says.

Fortunately, some people see a brave girl on the right side of the law, and recognize her for it:

Next month, the ACLU will present her with the William G. McLoughlin First Amendment Award, named after a Brown University history professor and liberal activist.

Read the whole article–these snippets are a small fraction–and add Jessica Ahlquist to your list of real world heroes. It also includes an excellent summary and timeline of the case.

And read at least a few of the comments afterward–one in particular is from the mom, unnamed but also joined in the suit, who (quite reasonably) goes unnamed to prevent her own child from being harassed like Jessica has been, and you’ll see how ugly a majority can be, and how important rights are for protection against that ugliness.


  1. Cuttlefish says

    The comments at the article (I just noticed them) are… predictable. Lots of people whose interpretation of the first amendment follows their gut feelings about their own beliefs. A great Rorschach inkblot test of religious and political sensibilities.

  2. Glodson says

    I have a little girl. She’s really little still. But if she grows up like this little girl, brave and intelligent. So if my little one has those qualities like Jessica Ahlquist, I would be very proud.

    The sad part is that she shouldn’t have to be brave. But she seems to understand quite well how some will react to her stand. And how some have already reacted. It is one thing to support the banner. That’s wrong and silly. It is another thing to attack Jessica for her stance. That’s just being a bully, that is also wrong and silly. One is bad, the other is downright disgusting.

    And I did read some of the comments. I was actually pleasantly surprised that more seemed supportive than I had guessed. Which is still a distressingly low number…

  3. Phledge says

    My nine-year old niece had to defend her atheism whilst on the bus, with gaggles of her classmates telling her she was going to hell. Fortunately she stuck to her guns; the busdriver was so impressed that she told my sister the story. I hope she keeps up the courage.


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