Friday, January 13, 2012

Losing Your Religion

Her name is Jessica Ahlquist, she is 16-year-old, lives and goes to school in Cranston, Rhode Island, and is one of the braver people you will meet. Why? Because she dared to stand up and demand that the First Amendment be respected in her school.

The problem: a banner, hanging in Cranston High School West since 1963, which starts with the words  “Our Heavenly Father” and concludes with the word, “Amen,” and is headed with the phrase “School Prayer.”

Ms. Ahlquist took exception to such a blatant Christian display in her school. She sued the school. And on January 11th, 2012, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux ruled in her favor, in a detailed ruling which outlined the genesis and the course of the banner and the subsequent public squabble over it. In the end, Justice Lagueux made it clear that the whole history of events pointed to a clear and distinct attempt to use Christian religion in a public school in a manner inconsistent with the First Amendment prohibition against government establish or endorsing a religion.

Perhaps it goes without saying, those of Christian faith have been less than charitable in their disagreement.

Justice Lagueux put it succinctly (reproduced from Opposing Views):
“The Cranston School Committee and its subcommittee held four open meetings to consider the fate of the Mural. At those meetings a significantly lopsided majority of the speakers spoke passionately, and in religious terms, in favor of retaining the Prayer Mural. Various speakers read from the bible, spoke about their personal religious convictions, threatened Plaintiff with damnation on Judgment Day and suggested that she will go to hell. The atmosphere was such that the Superintendent of Schools felt compelled to discuss his own religious beliefs at length when he made his recommendation to the Committee that they vote to retain the Prayer Mural.
“Similarly, five of the seven School Committee members expressed avowals of their own religious beliefs at the meeting, including two of those who voted against retaining the Mural,” Lagueux continued. “This is precisely the sort of ‘civic divisiveness’ that the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause cases repeatedly warn against. When focused on the Prayer Mural, the activities and agenda of the Cranston School Committee became excessively entangled with religion, exposing the Committee to a situation where a loud and passionate majority encouraged it to vote to override the constitutional rights of a minority.”
In essence, as the only arguments for having a religious banner in a school were religious, this clearly violated the First Amendment.

This victory, however, takes on a Pyrrhic quality, as those people who identify themselves as "Christian" by word and ideal, have acted in a far less than exemplary manner, bombarding Ms. Ahlquist both before and after the ruling with egregious epithets, threats, and violent condemnation. The hyperbolic and irrational firestorm this has created, does not reflect well upon those who purport to be adherents of Jesus Christ, for among his admonitions was to love thy enemies, and still further, to treat everyone as human and worthy of respect. Clearly, many of these people who now wish hate and violence upon a 16-year-old girl may have skipped those passages in reading their copy of The New Testament.

This is another moment where religious zealotry rears up and proceeds to further infect our society with brutish intolerance and holier-than-thou self-aggrandizement. It was precisely this level of religious fervor that the Founding Fathers were attempting to inoculate our nation against by placing the idea of legalized religious tolerance in the Bill of Rights. By enjoining the Federal government against establishing a national religious movement or supporting one religion over any others, they made it clear that, no matter what they or any Americans to follow may have thought regarding God and belief and worship, a person's religious choice was that: their choice.

It was an artifact of the Enlightenment, which, far from dismissing religious belief out of hand, sought to codify the natural rights of humanity and put them in their proper place. Christian religion, which had dominated Europe and driven much of its history, both in its establishment of its own legitimacy and in combat against other religious movements, was put into its proper role as a personal choice. To be part of the larger structure of a religious organization was, nonetheless, no reason for the individual to be so subsumed in it as to lose their individuality. The Catholic or Protestant or Anglican or Muslim or Jew... while holding to a greater system of beliefs, makes that system their own, and subjects it to their own interpretation. Even further, faith, belief in God, or lack of belief in a higher power (atheism), could also be seen as a system of beliefs deserving of equal consideration.

Men of the Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers sought to ensure that religious tolerance was an absolute in the new American nation, not just a "good idea." They were not so far removed from the history of Europe and Britain that they did not understand the role of religious divisiveness in fomenting conflict between religious groups and nations. They refused to consider allowing such divisiveness a foothold in The New World, where they could prevent it from doing so.

This leads us to a 16-year-old girl, who, realizing the impropriety of a public institution endorsing a particular and obvious religious prayer not in the context of an educational forum, bringing a request  before the American judicial system, which made the correct judgment based on the evidence. While many of religious bent would make her out to be a pariah, Jessica Ahlquist is, in fact, a patriot. We may bemoan the quality of American education at times, but it occasionally shows us that despite attempts to water it down, certain lessons invariably get through to those who are receptive. We should honor this child, for her willingness to step up and accept upon herself the ire that she knew would inevitably come, in the name law and justice, for that is the greatest measure of what it is to be an American: seeing what is wrong and setting out to change it. If there are more Jessica's out there, in our country, then I do not fear for this nation's future, as it will be in very good hands.

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