We’ve got an awesome transcript here of Jessica Ahlquist’s talk from SK5 thanks to the talented ears of Joy Westgate-Scherer. Enjoy Jessica’s talk about how she kicks all the butts!
Introduction: Well, alright, our next speaker I don’t think needs any introduction, especially because I’m out of breath. Jessica Ahlquist.
Jessica: Hi everyone! This is my first Skepticon, too. And I’m really excited to be here. I’ve always wanted to come and never got the opportunity to. And so far, I’m having a great time, and seeing so many people who I adore and only get a chance every once in awhile, and it’s been a great time. So thank you for that.
We’re just waiting for this to start up, but I assume that most of you know… an idea of what happened. I was at a public high school – in Cranston, Rhode Island – and as a freshman I was in my school’s auditorium and I saw a prayer on my school’s wall. And the prayer began “School Prayer”, and then it was “Our Heavenly Father, grant us each day…” and I actually have a picture, I don’t know where it is. [finding picture] That’s the prayer. It’s “School Prayer. Our Heavenly Father. Grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically. To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers. To be honest with ourselves as well as with others. Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win. Teach us the value of true friendship. Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West. Amen”. So that’s the prayer that I saw. And it’s a nice message, yes, but as an atheist this took me aback, and I knew immediately that it was wrong, that this was illegal to have a prayer in a public school.
So, that was toward the end of my freshman year, and that summer I decided to start doing some research on the Constitution, the First Amendment rights of students, and separation of church and state, and all these fun things. And coincidently, over that summer, a parent had been in the school’s auditorium for a private event she was attending for her daughters, and she noticed the prayer. And as a Jewish family, she worried that her daughters would go to the school and feel like they didn’t belong, or that the school valued their Christian students more than their Jewish students, or Hindu students, or Muslim students, or anyone for that matter. And so she sent a letter to the ACLU – the American Civil Liberties Union – and the American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter to my school, asking them to please remove it. Now the school’s response was to form a “subcommittee”, and the subcommittee consisted of members of the school committee and some attorneys, and it was pointless. We had meetings, and at these meetings, I started going, and I started speaking at these meetings. And I hated public speaking; I hate public speaking. [audience laughter]
And I had done some some research, and I had some facts in front of me that I had felt were absolutely irrefutable. And they refuted them anyway. And I spoke for the first time at these meetings, and I presented myself as an atheist student. And I was fifteen at the time, and had really not a good enough idea of exactly what was attached to that word. And somebody gasped under their breath at me, and I was called a “witch” [audience laughter], words like “Nazi” and “Satanist”, those were thrown about quite a bit. And it scared me. It made me never want to say that I was an atheist again. But then, I talked about separation of church and state; and how the school is the state, and the prayer is church, and they shouldn’t mixed in this way. And this guy started, like, condescendingly telling me that “little girl, we don’t want to be like Russia,” and I just got so mad that I decided to speak another time that night. And then I went to all the meetings after that and spoke at every single one, at each one presenting myself as an atheist. And I learned to not care that people hated me for it.
And we went to these meetings for months. The majority of my sophomore year, there was a month… I think there was probably a meeting every other month, and I think there were five total. And again, like I said, I spoke at all of them, and there maybe six atheists that sat in the corner, and there were the two hundred and fifty or so Christians that showed up to protest our existence. And we kept going to these meetings though, and eventually, we had a meeting to determine whether or not the prayer was going to stay up or be taken down. And the subcommittee decided to keep it up. So the ACLU contacted me, and said we’ve seen how involved you are in this issue, and we know that it means a lot to you, so because the school decided to keep it up, we’re offering to represent you in court. And I didn’t really have to think very long about whether or not I wanted to do it. I did, because I didn’t want people feeling like they could just take away my rights by, like, voting on it in a school committee meeting on it or something. It’s not that simple. My rights far precede even their birth. So I didn’t like that people’s rights were being violated, and that there was a self-righteous attitude that they could just take it from us because we’re atheists. They said “You’re the only atheist, just leave the school.” And I didn’t like that.
So we did, we filed a lawsuit in my sophomore year, April of two thousand and eleven… ten… I don’t remember. And that lasted nine months, that lawsuit. And it was in court, and it was really a miserable experience for me. I would come into the school, and people were nasty. People didn’t like that I had dared to do this, I guess. And my classmates were absolutely horrible. During “Diversity Week” at my school – and this is ironic and won’t be wasted on you – the mayor came into my school to talk about minorities and their rights and diversity, and as a Chinese-American he talked about how even as a minority who some people have discriminated against, he’s been able to succeed in the the world of politics. And then during his Q&A, somebody asked how he felt about the prayer, and we were sitting in the auditorium. He pointed to it, and said “I want to see the prayer stay exactly where it is, it’s not hurting anybody.” And he essentially called me out, in front of my entire school, and it was awful. And this kind of thing happened pretty regularly. It was things that I couldn’t even believe were happening. And that was a just daily thing for me.
So, eventually though, we won the lawsuit, in January of 2012. And that was a really exciting day, it was great. I thought, you know, “Everything’s over, everything can finally go back to normal. My life is going to be good again. I’m gonna have friends and I’m gonna be able to go to school and not just be that girl who everyone hates, and everything is going to get better for me.” Things go so much worse; it was so bad. We got a lot of – and when I say “we”, I mean my family. Here are some of the things that were said on Twitter after winning the lawsuit [images shown on overhead]. And I think my favorite (I know it’s in here somewhere) is “OMG, she’s almost as bad as blacks” [audience laughter]. And that one, yeah, the stuff that people were saying is stuff that could not be made up. It’s just bad. And the majority of the things I’m showing you right now are people who I grew up with, people who I had known since elementary school. And, you know, just to have them be saying things like this was seriously hurtful. And I did have to worry on a daily basis that someone was going to try to hurt me or something. And that was really just the beginning, though.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation tried to send me flowers. And they couldn’t, because out of the six flower shops they called in my state, none of them would send me flowers; they absolutely refused to send flowers to an atheist. And, and it was… [sigh] it was weird for me; I kind of just shut down emotionally and didn’t want to process any of it. Yeah, I’ve known this girl since we were like four [referring to comment posted on the overhead at 9:18]. And, then of course you’ve all heard “evil little thing”; my Representative, Peter Palumbo, referred to me as an evil little thing on a radio talk show, but that backfired in a really big way. The atheist community turn those into T-shirts, and sold them for a profit to go to my scholarship fund, so [audience cheers].
But the administration at my school was terrible. Kids started making T-shirts that said the prayer on them, so I would have to see them every day. And, you know, they didn’t understand, but I was like “That’s awesome! Do that! You have the freedom of speech, go do that. That belongs on a T-shirt, not on the wall.” And it was weird; it was weird to be driving through my neighborhood and see people who had put yard signs up that said the prayer. I was like the entire community wanted to make me see it as much as they possibly could. And one day, we had an assembly at school, and the topic of the assembly was not bullying me. It was about, specifically, not just not bullying, but not bullying me. And I had to go to it, which [laugh] which I don’t know.
And so I have a video here, and I wanted to show you this, because after we won the lawsuit, the school committee had a time where they were allowed to decide to appeal. And if they had decided to appeal, it would have gone to the supreme court, and no one wanted that. But it was at least, it was at least an option for them. And this is my favorite video; it gives you such an idea of what these meetings were like.
Woman: [Inaudible]… of Cranston, Rhode Island. Good Evening. You have before you a very important decision. To withstand an unconstitutional ruling, or to appeal it. Keep in mind the fact that a precedence is being set, ok. This is not just a Cranston, Rhode Island problem. This is the United States of America problem [video audience applause]. [Inaudible]. Now, we should ask ourselves, “Should such a small minority over a vast period of time – we’re talking decades, ok. Decades. Should a small minority be able to decide what should stand and what should not stand? After a vast majority of time, such as decades. I think not, ladies and gentlemen. Now I don’t know what type of math you’re teaching, but when I went to school, 2 was greater than 1. Maybe that’s not the case. Maybe you folks are teaching a new type of math. If you are, you better cut it out, ‘cause you ask me, in the face of God Almighty. [video audience applause]. I want to let you know that separation of church and state is not in our Constitution. I has not been said, but it’s been alluded to. Here, I will read from the Constitution of the USSR, Article 124, chapter 10: “In order to ensure to citizens freedom of conscience.” Let that sink in. “Freedom of conscience.” That means your consciences won’t be pricked by the word of God, or [unintelligible] of sin. Yes, I said the word “sin.” The church in the USSR is separated from the state, and the school from the church. Freedom of religious worship and freedom of anti-religious propaganda is recognized for all citizens. Now, what Constitution are we following? The United States of America – which is the greatest country in the world – or USSR? Where are you from, people? If you’re from the United States, then you will hang that banner. Because if you don’t hang the banner – if you don’t hang the banner you will not be reelected. Any of you. Including the mayor. That’s not a threat, that’s a promise. You can take it to the bank. [video audience applause/cheers] I’m not holding back how I feel. [more applause and unintelligible speaking]
Councilwoman: Ms [unitelligible], do you want your sign back?
Woman: [unitelligible] I happen to think it is a very good sign, and I’m going to use it again.
Woman: By the way – Ron Paul 2012 [video audience applause/boos/groans]
Jessica: Yeah… she was one of many. 250 of them. They weren’t all that crazy, and she’s obviously my favorite for a reason. [audience laughter] But yeah, that was how intense it got. These meetings were going like six hours long, and they were just crazy. But at this meeting, they decided not to appeal, and that was a relief, that was a huge relief, for me, and for my family, and I think for most people who just wanted it to be over. And from there, things did kind of die down. The prayer was covered – or not covered, it was actually removed from the wall. They didn’t paint over it. And I find this funny, ‘cause it’s like breaking news and it’s a white wall, but [laughing/audience laughing] they actually cut a like 10 by 8 peice of the wall out, and they’re hiding it from the atheist. It’s funny. Yeah.
But you know, the reason all of this didn’t kill me is because I had a huge support network. I didn’t know that the atheist community existed prior to having gone through all of this. And it was actually JT Eberhard who was the first person to reach out to me. And that was the start of having all these friends, and having a community, and having people who turned “evil little thing” into something positive, into something funny. And it was the people who sent me flowers; they eventually did find a florist in Connecticut who sent me flowers, and I couldn’t stop getting flowers. I got flowers every day, and I was suffocating in my sleep [audience laughter]. And it was such a nasty experience, but thanks to all of you guys it because something that I now view as… something I can be proud of, something that really makes a difference in my life, and hopefully in the lives of other people.
And I’m not the only one who has this kind of experience to share. I might be an extreme example, and I might have the opportunity to come up here are share it with you, but this stuff happens all over the country, all the time. And my friends – Harrison Hopkins, Damon Fowler, Zack Kopplin, Duncan Henderson, Daniel Moran, Krystal Myers, Max Nielsen – all of these people are, you know, students who have experienced very similar things in their high schools, colleges. And if not for the support we give them – and that you guys gave me – they might not be able to do these things.
So, I’m just wanting to ask you guys to keep please doing what you’re doing, because it really makes a difference, and it really helped me. So thank you.