Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Freedom From Religion


If a person is going to act fearlessly, then it’s best done when young. At least that’s how it worked out for me. Jessica Ahlquist is such a fearless person. Jessica took on the established and entrenched points of view of a large suburban community in Cranston, Rhode Island, and won. She had the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, family, and supporters throughout the country, but her battle was an individual one that resonates very clearly in this election year when some in power wish to destroy the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation between church and state.

The New York Times (“A Brave Stand in Rhode Island,” January 31, 2012) championed Jessica’s cause in an editorial and covered her case in a news article (“Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against Prayer,” The New York Times, January 26, 2012). Jessica is a self-proclaimed atheist. She took her high school to task for its display of  a student’s prayer that has hung on the wall of Cranston High School West’s auditorium since 1963. I taught briefly at Cranston West during the late 1970s, but I can’t remember the prayer in the school auditorium.

Jessica came to atheism after her mother fell ill when Jessica was in elementary school. And that was what she identifies as being the break she had with religion. Jessica’s case is all the more interesting because Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in the nation. She was labelled “an evil little thing,” by a Rhode Island state representative as her case moved to federal district court in Providence. Several florists in the area refused to send flowers that had been sent to Jessica from supporters around the nation. Local police had to provide escorts for her as the case heated the raw emotions that religious issues often tend to do. A 2009 graduate of the same school called Jessica “an idiot” in The Times news article.

In a wise decision, the Cranston School Committee voted not to appeal the federal district court ruling that supported Jessica’s attempt to have the prayer removed from her school. However, a stunned ACLU-Rhode Island representative, Steven Brown, commented on the apparent delay in removing the prayer banner from the school’s auditorium in response to the mayor of the city’s position that legal fees accrued in the case must be settled before the banner is removed. Brown questioned: “…whether this is an attempt by some petty officials to dredge up a new excuse to avoid complying with the Court’s decision” (“ACLU wants prayer banner removed ASAP,”, February 22, 2012).

Rhode Island holds a place of spectacular importance in the development of the doctrine of separation between church and state as is reflected in the First Amendment. Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, was driven out of Massachusetts in the 17th century for bucking the power of the King of England and local religious authority. Williams took King James to task for the king’s pronouncement as being the sole owner of the title to Massachusetts’s colonial lands. Williams had the audacity to declare that land would have to be bought from native tribes rather than taking title to something that he believed the British and colonists did not own. Williams further infuriated those in authority by forming alliances with the native population. As if this wasn’t enough in the eyes of the Church of England, he drew a firm line in the sand between church and state when he founded Providence Plantations in 1636 after being driven from Massachusetts for his views. I think that Jessica is the sort of high-minded person who Williams would be very, very comfortable with though they are separated by over three centuries.

Religion has come to occupy an important place in the political culture of the US. The far right has successfully injected religion into every political race since becoming a national presence in the 1970s and initiating the culture wars. The right has made religion a litmus test for candidates in local, state, and national races.

The First Amendment and I are no strangers to issues of conscience vis-a-vis Rhode Island. In 1989, I fought a First Amendment case against the Cranston School Committee. I had refused the invitation to lead a recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance before a Flag Day ceremony at an elementary school in the community (“Echoes of the Sixties,” CounterPunch, August 7, 2008). (I had not recited The Pledge since the Vietnam War.) I won a grievance against the principal who  had asked me to lead The Pledge after she began a campaign of harassment following my refusal. I received no support from any group during the grievance process because I had not actually been forced to recite The Pledge. What I recall most from the episode was the near universal condemnation I received from my fellow teachers and union for taking this controversial stand. I left the school district for a similar job in a nearby school district after having been transferred out of the school where I had refused the offer to lead the school in the recitation of The Pledge.

So, while it’s easy to rally around a cause such as Jessica’s for those who support freedom of speech and conscience, what I imagine wasn’t easy is how Jessica persevered against such bald-faced hostility.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at  

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future