The Most Hated Girl in America

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:
(picture from The Providence Journal:  Jessica, an atheist, felt that this violated separation of church and state.  It did, according to the ruling issued by the U.S. District Court Judge last week.  The 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.


Anonymous said…
All that needed to happen was to take the words "Dear Lord" and "Amen" off the prayer and it would have been a pledge instead which is acceptable in a public school. I agree with you completely that this is clearly a separation of church and state and it always bewilders me when Christians act out of hate instead of love.
Anonymous said…
Christians claim they are peaceful, but history shows otherwise, even now.

Conversions at the point of a sword, pogroms, crusades, the centuries of Inquisition, and finally Hitler implementing what Martin Luther had suggested centuries before. The religions of the Book do not tolerate dissent.
Anonymous said…
My views on the separation of church and state, in particular situations involving the education system are clear: Keep things like this school prayer, the Ten Commandments (unless being referenced in a historical context), the "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, etc, out of schools. The goal of a school system, public or private, is not to promote any specific religion. Things such as these clearly have dangerous consequences: how could anyone be so hateful towards a girl who is no different really than from themselves (if a student themselves) or from their own sons, daughters, friends' children, etc. (if an adult or parent)?

Instead, schools need to a place for learning, and not just of the traditional textbook and standarized test variety, but of true learning; where children and teenagers are prepared for life in the world. This must include education in tolerance and knowledge of other religions/belief systems. I dream of someday there being a World Religions clas as a common class at high schools across the nation.

Furthermore, I am so disheartened to hear of such interfaith hatred such as the story of this teenage girl so much like myself. Will we ever acknowledge, at least in the area of religion, that there is one thing we all have in common as a human race: we all have a innate right to believe in and practice whatever religion (or lack of religion) that we wish? There will probably always be conflict of some kind among those of the human race, yet I dream of someday an end to this religious hatred and intolerance.

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