An irrefutable argument

Jessica Ahlquist is suing her school district to have a prominently posted prayer removed. It should be an open-and-shut case — it’s a freakin’ prayer in a public school, for pity’s sake — but I noticed one peculiar argument in a profile of the case.

Her frequent appearances, say the lawyers for the city and school, show that she does not fear harassment, as she claims in her suit. “These are not the actions of a frightened student, but of a zealous advocate.”

If the prayer were a problem, students would be cowed and fearful, and would not be complaining. A student is complaining, therefore she isn’t fearful, therefore it’s not a problem.

That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

(via Cuttlefish)


  1. fastlane says

    I can’t wait to read that smack down. I’m sure the young woman’s lawyers are getting all of these press releases.

    Should be fun to show them to the judge(s).

  2. Ryan Cunningham says

    “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

    That policy is disturbingly close to the ACTUAL Catch-22.

  3. MadScientist says

    Somehow I don’t think “It’s OK for public schools to push prayers because students aren’t really afraid of them” would hold up in a US court of law – and hopefully it never will.

  4. ariamezzo says

    The one time I explicitly experienced prayer in public school (not counting the BS-prayer “moment of silence” every day) I got very uncomfortable. I was at my girlfriend’s high school for prom enjoying dinner at a table with her and all of her friends. Out of nowhere, someone over the speaker systems tells us to stop eating and proceeded to give a Christian prayer. This was a really small high school in the middle of nowhere with only like 50 people attending the prom and I suspect I was the only person who felt a sudden chill at being unexpectedly assaulted by this prayer. It was not a good feeling in the slightest.

  5. Glodson says

    I guess being brave, standing up for your rights, and expecting a school to not piss all over the establishment clause is the act of a true zealot.

    Or just a brave young woman who isn’t taking that kind of shit. I mean, it is like the lawyers for the school are trying to find the worst possible way to frame their argument.

  6. Becca Stareyes says

    One thing I’m struck by is that calling this young lady a ‘zealous advocate’ is a reason for her to be dismissed by the speaker. Being a zealous advocate strikes me as a good thing, as one is not just speaking up because it personally affects her as an atheist, but that the mural affects all nontheist students* and it is neither right nor legal for it to remain.

    * And probably those who aren’t the ‘right’ kind of theism, depending on how it’s worded.

  7. says

    Couldn’t she keep her stupidity to herself?!

    No! she had to spread around… and even trow dirt on the Doctor Who fans. People who try to push their religion over others is just pathetic.

  8. Paul Coyne says

    I’ve read the harassment and it’s real. That she doesn’t feel fear (if true) does not take away from the vileness of her detractors. Logic is taking a holiday. Jessica is a brave young woman.

  9. Alex, Tyrant of Skepsis says

    The fact that the colonies were able to organize a revolution against the British empire is definitively a sign of strength and their ability to act independently, which shows us how much independence and prosperity the colonies have achieved as part of the great empire, and thus that the revolution is counterproductive and unnecessary.

  10. Balzan Cauckinand says

    Just because someone isn’t fearful does not mean their argument loses steam, Nor does it mean they do not feel victimized or offended. Which is the primary reason for these proceedings.

  11. b00ger says

    It seems only logical to point out that “does not fear harassment” and “would like to not be harassed, but is currently being harassed” are two completely separate things.

  12. Autumn says

    My town’s public middle school has a granite block inscribed with Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
    In a few years my son will be going there, and I plan to ask the school board to remove it, but I honestly don’t know if I’ll have the gumption.
    Jessica Ahlquist, you’re braver than I am.

  13. Cassius Corodes says

    From what I’ve seen of legal arguments – the strategy seems to be quantity not quality. I guess the hope is you throw enough stuff at the judge and something sticks.

    It makes fun reading as often arguments seem to fly directly in the face of reality, but I’ve always wondered how judges feel about it. Wouldn’t they get increasingly angry at the lawyer for wasting their time?

  14. Zinc Avenger says

    I’ve got one.

    If the school wins, then her viewpoint is being suppressed.

    If she wins, then she obviously has more power than the school and so can’t be oppressed at all.

    Therefore, if she loses, she wins; If she wins, she loses.

  15. Alex, Tyrant of Skepsis says

    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

    Sponsored by the American Non Sequitur Society

  16. says

    @Autumn: You don’t necessarily need to publicly out yourself to challenge that middle school bible quote. Start now, and contact national groups like American Atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Oftentimes, simple letters from such organizations will do the trick. If it turns into a legal battle, you can probably still be anonymous and these organizations will fight for you. I am not a lawyer, but I think having a child zoned for future enrollment in a school would be legal standing.

  17. Patrick says

    I’m halfway through my 4th reading of the book, and this post pleased me a great deal. I laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and re-read the post, and laughed, more than I have any Pharyngula post in a long time.

  18. RipleyP says

    An An articulate, intelligent and strong young lady is Miss Ahlquist.

    With such intelligence and strength of character apparent in this person how could the x-ians have expected her to be anything but atheist and clever enough to bring them to account for their privilege.

    Her family must be proud because if I were her parent I would be as pleased as punch.

    You go girl…

  19. Therrin says

    Cassius Corodes,

    Wouldn’t they get increasingly angry at the lawyer for wasting their time?

    Some judges find ways to make their displeasure known (the second being one of my most favorite orders ever).

  20. truthspeaker says

    A zealous advocate, you say?

    A banner near the main entrance to the school explains what the school expects of its students.

    A Cranston West graduate, it says, should be “an informed, involved citizen who advocates for positive changes …”

  21. says

    It’s the best there is.

    If the prayer were a problem, students would be cowed and fearful, and would not be complaining. A student is complaining, therefore she isn’t fearful, therefore it’s not a problem.

    They also say that the fact that she’s the first to complain demonstrates that students aren’t cowed and fearful, therefore it’s not a problem.

  22. MGM says

    I really shouldn’t have read the comments on that website. This one in particular made me cringe:

    What is important is this: in mandating the removal of all religious reference the state embraces and supports only one theistic position, (the a-theistic one) and this, too, is a position of faith.

  23. says

    @MGM I can’t believe some idiot stated that! oops! I meant I do believe.

    Is such an weak argument! “A position of faith”, only a idiot could say that!

  24. Barry says

    I saw Jessica talk at the FFRF gathering in Hartford last weekend. She’s a lot braver than I was at 16.

  25. tamaratemple says

    @16: Just scratch out “Lord” and replace it with “Unknown”. The sentiment works perfectly.

  26. timberwoof says

    The reaction of the school reminds me of that email PZMyers got about how much better it would be if people just played along with the Noble Lie.

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

    Bullies for Jesus!

    You go, Jessica. And when things get dark and there seems to be no way out, just remember that it gets better.

  27. says

    Uh no. It’s when people are suppressed and bullied into going against their constitution that make them stand up for their rights. The bullying is involved, in this case, because the desires of the religious many cannot respect the rights of the rational few.

  28. Kevin says

    Her emotional state is not the legal issue.

    The legal issue is the promotion of a specific religion by public officials.

    Sorry, no. Not even the Roberts Court would agree to this — heck, not even Scalia would side with the school.

    If you’re on the wrong side of Scalia, you’re on the wrong side of batshit crazy.

    Hint to school district: save yourself legal fees. Pay a nice science teacher instead.

  29. Autumn says

    Yeah, I’d like to see this go to the SCOTUS just to see if there was a dissenting opinion, and if there was, what precedents it cited.
    I do admit that Scalia authored a minority opinion about the 2nd amendment that did change the way I thought about the “well regulated Militia” clause.
    Most of the time, though, I think he’s a dumbass.

  30. Loreo says

    They should remove the prayer just for being dumb.

    It suggests that the students should send wishes to a magic sky fairy; no institution of learning should endorse that.

  31. Matt Penfold says

    I cannot helo wonder is the lawyer knows the school does not have a hope of winning a legal case, has told his/her clients this been told a prepare a defence anyway.

    In such circumstances I can see how it might be fun to take one of the more inane comments made by your client and make it the basis of the defence.

  32. julian says

    In such circumstances I can see how it might be fun to take one of the more inane comments made by your client and make it the basis of the defence.

    I think it might be more of an attempt to win public approval by branding Ms Ahlquist as some uppity jilted student pretending to be hurt. Instead of this being an open and shut case of the school messing up royally it becomes another frivolous law suit by a woman/black guy/bum trying to make a buck.

    Regardless of what happens in court the school and city don’t suffer from negative approval and can continue to count on public support at the ground level with minimal opposition.

  33. Ichthyic says

    I do admit that Scalia authored a minority opinion about the 2nd amendment that did change the way I thought about the “well regulated Militia” clause.

    if you think so, you really should read the rebuttals to that argument.

    Scalia was way off base.

  34. Zerple says

    I love Catch-22s. They’re just so beautiful and complete in their means of completely circumventing an actual issue with nonsense. It’s like circular logic mixed, with a half-truth, mixed with magic.

    That being said, they should obviously take the prayer down. I just admire the argument made by the defense, because of it’s extreme lack of merit.

    Also, so what if she is an “advocate”? Since when is advocating to not have your constitutional rights trampled a bad thing?

  35. greame says

    @ 29 MGM

    That is the same guy who repeats over and over that the words “heavenly father”, “amen”, and “prayer” have been around since the beginning of written language. I smell goat breath.

  36. astrosmash says

    These lawyers KNOW they will lose. But the school and the city will still have to pony up after it’s all over…What an easy ride for those lawyers. Aren’t they required to inform their clients of the near impossiblity of winning?

  37. RhodeIslander says

    You know who else was both harassed and uppity? Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and first American advocate for the separation of church and state.

    RI was America’s first haven for religious dissent, and I think that for once, we can be perfectly sure of what the “founders” would have thought about a case like this:

    “All civil states with their officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are […] essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the Spiritual, or Christian, State and worship.”
    “An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state confounds the principles of Christianity and civility […] No one should be bound to worship, or to maintain a worship, against his own consent.”

    Williams wrote that in 1644(!) If he were around now, he’d slap these people around and wonder why people are still arguing about this stuff 375 years after he laid a similar smack-down on those other Puritans.

    Ms Alquist is a brave and awesome young lady, RW would be proud.

  38. thunderbird5 says

    Oh its not the religious (ie anti-constitutional) thing, this wall-prayer is an historic monument thing, say the school/district lawyers.

    It went up in 1963. What, so Providence is Las Vegas now?

  39. KingUber says

    If you ask me, being forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance should count as school prayer, after all it has the words “under God” in it