FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Freedom From Religion

by HOWARD LISNOFF

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,” WPRI.com, 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 howielisnoff@gmail.com.  

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail