Why Is an Atheist High School Student Getting Vicious Death Threats?
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If you take away just two things from the story about atheist high school student Jessica Ahlquist, and the court case she won last week to have a prayer banner taken out of her public school, let it be these:
- The ruling in this case was entirely unsurprising. It is 100 percent in line with unambiguous legal precedent, established and re-established over many decades, exemplifying a basic principle of constitutional law.
- As a result of this lawsuit, Jessica Ahlquist is now being bullied, ostracized and threatened with violence in her community. She has been called "evil" in public by her state representative, and is being targeted with multiple threats of violence, rape and death.
Which leads one to wonder: What the hell is going on here?
Let's get #1 out of the way first. This court decision -- that as a public school in the United States, Cranston High School West cannot promote religion, either any particular religion or the idea of religion in general -- is, in any legal sense, entirely non-controversial. In ruling after ruling, for decades now, this principle has been made eminently clear. There have, of course, been some genuinely controversial court cases recently about separation of church and state, which examined previously untested questions and established new legal precedent.
But Jessica Ahlquist's was not one of them. Not even in the slightest. This was a no-brainer. If the school district's lawyers didn't uncategorically advise the district that they didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell, and fervently plead with them to concede the case before trial, they should be disbarred. (A PDF of the full court ruling, including extensive citation of clear precedent, can be found on the Friendly Atheist blog.)
For anyone who doesn't understand this ruling or agree with it, let me take a moment to explain. First of all: No, the majority does not always rule. In a constitutional democracy, people with minority, dissenting, or unpopular opinions and identities have some basic rights, which the majority cannot take away. If the majority thought that everyone had to dye their hair brown, or that all witches should be burned at the stake, the majority would not rule. Redheads have the right not to dye their hair brown; witches have the right not to be burned at the stake. No matter how much in the minority they are.
And the right to not have your government impose a religious belief on you is one of these basic rights. The right to make your own private decisions about religion or the lack thereof, without your government enforcing or promoting a particular view on religion that may or may not be your own, is one of the most central rights that this country was founded on. In fact, it's the very first right established in the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." As U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux said in his ruling, "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."
Oh, and no, this case was not about "history" or "tradition." Many people opposed to this ruling are making a very disingenuous argument: saying that the prayer in question wasn't really a prayer, that the religious content wasn't really religious but was simply "history" and "tradition," and that it therefore shouldn't be a problem. Bull. When a public school has a banner in its auditorium beginning "Our Heavenly Father" and ending "Amen"... that's a prayer. The religious fervor with which the banner was defended attests to that. As Judge Lagueux pointed out in his ruling, "No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that." Furthermore: