Jessica Ahlquist, is my niece and the Cranston, Rhode Island high school student who sued her city over an unconstitutional prayer banner on the wall of the high school auditorium she attended. The case was decided by the judge on strictly constitutional grounds. The presence of a Christian prayer in a public school was a violation of the First Amendment. This week Jessica was invited to Illinois by the Citizen Advocacy Center, a group dedicated to "building democracy for the 21st century by strengthening the public's self-governing capacities, resources, and institutions." Jessica was invited to speak about "why she took the stand she did, the significant public adversity she endured in standing up for her beliefs, and the outcome of her legal case, which she won this year. "
Of course, it couldn't be as simple as all that.
A group called the Illinois Family Institute, a right-wing Christian group that "works within the state of Illinois to promote and defend Biblical truths to foster an environment where families can thrive and reach their full God-given potential to serve and glorify Him– making the most of the opportunities afforded to each of us by His gift of life and liberty" decided to protest Jessica's speaking schedule. They are angry that Jessica was asked to speak at three area high schools about her experiences in standing up for the Constitution.
Laurie Higgins wrote a long piece, Constitution Week at York, Waubonsie, and Downers Grove North High Schools, on the IFI website calling for people to contact the administration and school board members of York, Waubonsie Valley, Downers Grove North and Metea Valley high schools, "If you object to the invitation of Jessica Ahlquist or the inadequacy of the permission slips sent to parents."
Hemant Mehta, on his blog The Friendly Atheist, wrote about this action being taken against Jessica, and I read it early in the morning and thought, "no big deal, this seems like a pretty podunk outfit mounting a half-assed attack." In an email, Hemant assured me that the IFI were small potatoes. But Jessica texted me later in the day, complaining that this group was targeting school officials, and that there was a rising tide of complaints against her. Once again, it appeared to me, Jessica was being targeted by Christian bullies.
I sent out emails and Facebook posts asking for help. As a result, hundreds of people from across the country began using the web form contact button on the IFI's own site to send messages of support to school officials. Though it is unclear that the pro-Jessica emails would make it through the IFI's system (they may have set up the web form so that messages would have to be approved by an administrator before being sent on to the recipient)s Laurie Higgins wrote about this tactic on the IFI site yesterday accusing Hemant Mehta of being behind this. As far as I know, he wasn't.
Higgins splits hairs when she says, "Some of Ahlquist’s fans who used our system failed to notice that my article did not call for the cancellation of her speaking engagement." No, she only said to write and complain, "If you object to the invitation of Jessica Ahlquist." What form would such an objection take if it were not a call to action? Higgins can parse her comments and actions any way she wants, but it was clear that she sought to harass and bully Jessica and those who arranged her visit to prevent her from speaking at such forums in the future.
In fact, Higgins goes on at length about how the very issue of bullying is some sort of non-issue that liberals use to promote their godless, anti-family agendas. Higgins shows herself to be a religious paranoid of the first order, drunk on religious intolerance.
That intolerance is spreading. The Elmhurst Illinois Patch ran a story, Controversy Over Atheist Speaker at York Reaches Wide Audience, that describes parent Nancy Cramblit's outrage:
"Everyone on my email list thinks it's disgusting, ridiculous and definitely a leftist move," Cramblit said of bringing Ahlquist to the district.
Later, we learn that Cramblit's son will opt out of attending the presentation involving Jessica, because actually learning things and questioning bias is not something good Christian kids do, apparently. Apparently there's no way the Cramblit family's weak Christian faith can stand up to a seventeen year old atheist. Cramblit says,
"It's always a punishment for those of us who opt our kids out," she said. "Then our kids are isolated and they have that diminished experience. This is what divides families. They don't want to be isolated. They don't want the diminished experience, so they won't tell you what's going on at school."
It should be noted that Cramblit here says that she opted her son out of attending the presentation, but earlier in the same article (like two lines earlier) it was said that her son opted out on his own. Which is it?
The fact that Jessica does not believe in God is irrelevant to the larger issue about the Constitution and the First Amendment that Jessica was invited to speak on. In this context Jessica represents a minority viewpoint and when she expressed her desire to be taken seriously as an American citizen, she was treated with terrible disdain, and eventually with threats of death and rape. Standing up for what is right and good is difficult. For adults like Higgins and Cramblit to buy into the prejudice and bullying is simply unacceptable. They should be ashamed.
Note: Hemant Mehta contacted me to say that between Hemant's site and an FFRF alert sent out yesterday a lot of phone calls were made. The issue seems to be somewhat resolved.