This list was inspired in part by a sort-of FAQ I wrote (Facebook login required) for new members just joining the “Support the Removal of the Cranston High School West Prayer Banner” Facebook group of which I am a member. It had come to my attention that many new members of the page were arguing against straw-men or were just plain wrong about certain things. A lot of people who form opinions on this case or on Jessica Ahlquist herself seem to not have read the judge’s decision in this matter (PDF file) and, as a result, are largely ignorant of the facts involved. Here is my grand experiment: a list of the common arguments for the prayer banner, or against Jessica Ahlquist and her position, as well as my responses.
“What about the rights of the students in favor of the prayer banner?”
We do not have the right to use public property (such as the wall of a public school) for displays that endorse religion and/or religious statements — plain and simple. The pro-banner people still have the rights to private religious expression, such as wearing the banner text on t-shirts, posting it in their lockers (which are considered private property in the public school), and even praying to themselves and in after-school prayer groups (as long as they aren’t endorsed by the school). This is an issue of separation of church and state, not about the rights of one group vs. the rights of another. The First Amendment rights of religious thought, expression, and belief are recognized for individual citizens, not the government, nor any entity thereof (such as a public school).
A public school is taxpayer-funded, publicly-owned, and government-run and, as such, belongs to all the citizens of the city or town in which the school is located, and not just the Christians or any other religious group. Therefore, it cannot be co-opted by any religious group(s) to advertise their message. This neutrality, which separates church from state, ensures religious freedom equally and for all people.
“Why not just change the wording of the banner instead of removing it?”
The school board was offered the opportunity to change the wording of the banner to make it non-religious, but that was rejected — hence the lawsuit. They were given every opportunity to alter the banner so it was no longer a prayer, but they denied those opportunities. Now that the court decision has been handed out, legally it is indeed too late to compromise. The ruling stands, and the school must take the prayer down (they are hiding it for now).
“It wasn’t a religious banner!” or “Take out ‘Heavenly Father’, ‘School Prayer’, and ‘Amen’ and it’s no longer religious!”
It’s not just “School Prayer”, “Our Heavenly Father”, and “Amen” that make it a religious display. It’s the very wording of the entire prayer, calling upon an external entity to “grant us”, “help us”, and “teach us” to do certain things and be a certain way. A secular version would read something like, “We vow to”, or “We promise to”, rather than calling for someone else to instill within the students a sense of honor and humility. It is currently still a prayer in and of itself.
Removing this banner protects the rights of all religions (and religious stances, such as atheism and deism) to propagate their message in an unfiltered format to those who want to hear it. Attempting to force religion from the government (or a government entity such as a public school) only waters down the message to bland incoherence.
Besides, there is already a secular school creed on the wall across the auditorium from the school prayer banner. It bears much the same sentiments that an edited school prayer would have, rendering the school prayer banner unnecessary and redundant.
“She should have just stayed silent and not made such a fuss.”
If you agree that the prayer banner is unconstitutional (which it is), Jessica was well within her rights to bring a lawsuit against the school in order to have them take it down. Staying silent about the matter would not have helped things, and would have given justification and vindication to those who want to see the unconstitutional prayer banner stay up. When we see government entities violating the constitution, it is our civic duty as citizens to combat these injustices. Remaining quiet and sitting silently do nothing but further the injustices.
“But it’s a historical artifact and should stay up for that reason!”
The prayer banner is as much a historical artifact as a “Whites Only” sign hung up in memory of segregation. It still has no place on a public wall, artifact or no. The prayer banner may be a relic of a time when such things were accepted without question, but it still does not change the fact that it is discriminatory and unconstitutional. Having it up sends the wrong message. In the case of the “Whites Only” sign, it sends the message that somehow the school is proud of a time in our past when segregation was the norm and white and “coloreds” could be forced to remain separate without question. In the case of the prayer banner, it sends the message that the school endorses Christianity (as “Our Heavenly Father” is a specifically Christian evocation of their god), and is proud of a time in our past when Christianity could be shoved in everybody’s faces without much of an argument. Also, the Judge Lagueaux’s own words in his decision on the matter are quite clear about how important the historicity is of a constitutional violation.
The prior silence of a minority is not justification for continuing oppression. It is further proof that such oppression should cease.
“Isn’t Jessica leaving Cranston West [and going to a Catholic school]?”
Jessica is not leaving Cranston West, and is certainly not going to a Catholic school. These are unfounded rumors started by people who wish to libel Jessica and devalue her position, including a local radio station, WPRO 630 AM, who had to retract an article they posted regarding the rumors. By saying she’s going to a religious school, it makes her lawsuit seem trivial and pointless, and vindicates the religious pro-banner people in their belief that Jessica was somehow only seeking attention and fame.
“The phrase ‘separation of church and state’ cannot be found anywhere in the First Amendment!”
While the phrase “separation of church and state” may not be found verbatim in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, it is nonetheless our current legal and official interpretation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause. Separation of church and state is not just a good idea: it’s the law. It also protects everybody’s rights — religious and non-religious — by leaving religion a private matter of conscience to be decided on an individual basis. In Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson — one of our founding fathers — makes a direct and clear assertion that the Establishment Clause was written in order to build “a wall of separation between church and state”.
Put yourselves in the opposite position: what if you were the lone Christian in a school full of mostly atheists, who had an atheistic banner (something along the lines of “Believing in gods is a silly, childish act; gods aren’t real; we must rely on ourselves and each other to be good sports,” etc.) up on the wall of the public school you attended. Would you be OK with that? Would you be OK with a public school putting up a religious message (i.e. message regarding a particular stance on religion, which atheism can be considered to be) that went against the very tenets you hold dear and true? Or would you rather see it taken down, so that the public school remains neutral in terms of religious expression?
That’s exactly what we want.
“Majority rules, minority drools!” (or something like that)
The “majority rules” mentality is absolutely wrong and unjust. In this country, the majority cannot force their opinion and beliefs on the minority, nor can they violate others’ rights simply because they can, as the majority. Our rights, as recognized by the Constitution, are there to protect the minority from tyranny of the majority; they are there to protect unpopular speech, unpopular religious stances, and unpopular forms of expression. Saying that the majority should have their way simply because they can implies that slavery should have been kept around, simply because the majority wanted it that way; that segregation should have continued, simply because the majority was comfortable with the way things were going; and that women should never have been granted the right to vote, simply because the majority of men in this country might not have wanted them to have that right. It is dangerous territory in which to dwell, where one can have their way simply because an overwhelming number of people happen to agree with them.
“Jessica should have expected the backlash she has received!”
This is essentially exonnerating the abusers of any and all wrongdoing, as well as placing the blame solely on Jessica, who fought to protect the separation of church and state that allows us all equal freedom of religious thought and expression. If you said something to make me angry, and I then went and hurt somebody, are you to blame? Or am I to blame for my violent actions? We all must hold personal responsibility for our own actions. Saying that Jessica (or anybody else) is responsible for receiving abuse from those who disagree with her, is dishonest at best… and dangerous at worst. It is scapegoating, plain and simple.
“Better not use paper currency or coins, as they have ‘In God We Trust’ all over them! We’re a Christian nation after all!”
Some people use this as evidence that we are a Christian nation, largely because they are unaware of when it was plastered all over our currency, national motto, and Pledge of Allegiance, and why it was done.
From 1776 until 1955, U.S. paper currency did not have the phrase “In God We Trust” on it. This was added in 1955 during the Red Scare as a way to reinforce the myth that we were a Christian nation, in the face of the evil, godless Communism that Senator McCarthy had everybody in a panic over. It was added by Secretary of the Treasury at the time, George W. Humphrey and approved by President Eisenhower.
From 1776 until 1864, our coinage did not bear the phrase “In God We Trust” on them. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase added it, a measure which was approved by Congress.
The original Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892, and for 62 years it was recited without “under God”. That phrase was added in 1954 during the same Red Scare mentioned above, by the Knights of Columbus, and approved by Eisenhower.
The word “God” cannot be found anywhere in the Constitution, nor does it mention religion, except to bar the federal government from interfering with religious choice and freedom. Also, Article VI states that “no religious test shall ever be required as qualification” for holders of federal office.
The oath taken by the president of the United States, as outlined in Article II Section 1 of the Constitution, does not contain “So help me God”. This has been added verbally by most modern-day presidents.
The Declaration of Independence (which is not an officially binding document) uses the word “God” only once, referring to a Deistic god of nature in a “mother earth” meaning of the term. The Declaration uses the phrase “Divine Providence” once without definition, referring to a cooperation of nature with everything that happens. Every religious, of course, has its own interpretation of this phrase.
“She is a pawn of her parents / the ACLU!”
Just listen to Jessica Ahlquist yourself. She seems to me like a well-spoken, intelligent (and not to mention brave) young woman who knows what she’s talking about. Her appearances on shows such as The Non-Prophets (May 28, 2011) reveal her to be a person who knows what she is talking about. If she is a pawn of her parents, then all teenagers are mere pawns of their parents, acting like good and caring individuals only because their parents tell them to, and not because those values were instilled in them at an early age and they are using their own minds to make their own choices. This is of course a ridiculous assertion. An overwhelming majority of the statements released by the Ahlquist family have been written or spoken by Jessica herself, in her own words.
As for the American Civil Liberties Union, they simply asked Jessica if she wished to be a plaintiff in this case. They are hardly using anybody; in fact, it can be argued that Jessica has been using the ACLU — the way it should be, as the ACLU is essentially a tool that people can utilize in bringing up cases against the government regarding separation of church and state and other personal civil liberties.
Also, this is not the first time cases like these have been brought up. Another case, as early as 1963, involved a then-16-year-old student named Ellery Schempp who also sued his school for compelling students to recite a Christian prayer, with the help of the ACLU. Was he a pawn of the ACLU as well? Nearly 50 years later, he has yet to admit to anything of the sort.
“Removing the banner is establishing a religion of atheism!”
First of all, atheism is not a religion in and of itself; it is a religious stance, a viewpoint on the matter of religious belief, which ensures equal protection under the law. Secondly, removing a prayer banner is not establishing atheism as some kind of religion; it is establishing secularism, which is a stance of neutrality when it pertains to the government and the entities thereof (such as public schools). The difference between establishing atheism and establishing secularism is that the former would be an attempt to endorse the lack of belief in a god or gods (or compelling others to question their own belief in a god or gods), while the latter is establishing neutrality, which ensures an even, equal, fair playing ground for all religious beliefs and stances. The former is just as unjust and unconstitutional as a Christian prayer banner, whereas the latter is something for which we should all strive regarding our government.
In conclusion, I leave you with the words of Thomas Jefferson:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT., January 1, 1802
If you want to support Jessica Ahlquist in her efforts, you can buy an “Evil Little Thing” t-shirt, labeled in defiance of the term Rhode Island Representative Peter G. Palumbo used against her (first clip on the page) on John DePetro’s radio talk show, where he called her an “evil little thing”. These shirts come in many different colors, sizes, and varieties, along with two (at the moment) typeface choices for the front text. I’ve already purchased mine in royal blue with white lettering, which can be seen to the left. Portions of the proceeds will go toward a college fund set up for Jessica.
Or, if you want to make a more direct donation without purchasing a t-shirt, you can do so using the Chip-In widget below.