In 1964, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, founder of the American Atheists, was called "the most hated woman in America." Judging from the response to Jessica Ahlquist, the love of atheists hasn't increased much. Indeed, in 2009, a University of Minnesota research study published in the American Sociological Review showed atheists to be the most disliked minority group of those they polled, including Muslims and homosexuals. When asked to respond to the statement, "This Group Does Not At All Agree with My Vision of American Society," 39.6% agreed atheists do not (26.3% for Muslims, who came in second), and 47.6% would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist (33.5% for Muslims, again the next highest category).
So perhaps the vehemence directed toward 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist should not be shocking. Ahlquist is a teenager who attends Cranston High School West in Cranston, Rhode Island. Cranston High School West had a prayer banner that hung in their school:
judge weighed in very clearly on this question, saying, "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."
Since that time, and probably before as well, Jessica Ahlquist has received messages of hate and threats of violence and death. She has been the victim of cyberbullying from within her community and without. Rhode Island state representative Peter G. Palumbo, who called her an "evil little thing." Even some moderate Rhode Islanders with Cranston connections I talked to recently were saying things like, "I don't see why it can't stay there. It's tradition. If you don't like it, just don't look at it."
Over and over again, I see something like this, and I'm stunned. I can't grasp what makes people so frightened, especially when they are the majority, of the actions and beliefs of a young girl. It's a fundamental piece of my understanding of what makes America great that we create a space where people should be free from religious persecution and that the way we do this is through freedom of belief, lack of state-sponsored religion, and freedom of speech.
Freedom of religion means that the government does not impose its religion on you. It's what protects us from Sharia law, too. These same people who are so incensed that a Christian banner is taken down from a public high school, well I'm sure the majority of them would not want a Muslim banner hung in its stead. We keep hearing the panic that Sharia law is being declared in Muslim communities in America, like Dearborn, from the conservative Christian right. But what protects us from being a country under Muslim law is exactly the same thing that demands that this banner be taken down.
But, of course, the fear of Muslims and the fear of atheists aren't logical, rational things.
The obvious irony is that the words of the prayer call on people to grow morally, to be kind, to conduct themselves in a way that brings credit to the school, and to be good sports and smile when we lose.
If only everyone who wants the prayer to hang could at least try to live up to it.