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Friday: On Religious Freedom

Gosh, it’s tough to be a high school atheist these days. No wonder Brooke wants to homeschool. Jessica Ahlquist of Cranston, R.I. is catching Hell for speaking up at school board meetings about the, well, there’s no other way to say this, offensive prayer that hung in the lobby of her high school for 49 years. It’s hard to believe that Cranston got away with it for that long. One suspects that it was some kind of “in your face, asshole” response to Madelyn Murray O’Hare’s 60′s crusade against prayer in public school. Here’s the text of the 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

What’s so wrong with that, you might ask? Several things. First, there’s a presumption that there is a God. You can believe what you want. I’m not an atheist but I also don’t believe in the God of the Bible. Secondly, that non-existant Biblical God doesn’t have a gender. Not only is this prayer offensive to atheists, it’s offensive to women and girls. The minute you walk into Cranston West H.S., you already know where you are in the cosmic pecking order. Starting the day as the lowliest of the low does not make for an affirming academic experience.  The majority of Cranston’s residents are Catholic and Catholics don’t really have a place in their theology for women except as virgins, martyred virgins, virgin mothers, cloistered virgins and babymakers.  It’s a very binary world for Catholic women.

The rest of the prayer presumes that students can’t be moral, kind, supportive or friendly if they don’t believe in the non-existent, male, Biblical God.  This puts the atheist in an awkward position.  If they want to stay on the school community’s good side, they have to conform and keep their atheism a secret.  We can see by Jessica’s example what happens when they don’t.  Whenever someone proclaims that creationism is as good as evolution or that it’s Ok to ostracize someone who’s gay or call girls sluts if they have sex because that’s what it says in the Bible and it’s moral, the atheist can’t really challenge that ignorance and hurtful behavior without revealing themselves to be an UNBELIEVER.  I’m not quite sure why it is that believers can’t tolerate the unbelief of others.  It’s a mystery.

The prayer has a way of squashing dissent. Keeping the unbelievers quiet means that biblical “morality” and Fox induced Acquired Stupidity Syndrome goes unchecked and propagates, and we as a nation go further down the rabbit hole because unquestioned obedience to an authoritarian power trumps reason.   I’m sure that Rupert Murdoch and our financial industry overlords are fine with this but there’s no reason why any American should be complacent about it.  Unleashing the power of the faithful in a country that has been encouraged to embrace fundamentalism is leading to our own destruction.  Fundamentalists are trained to not trust their own understanding but allow others to interpret scripture and events for them.  This has the potential to empower dangerous people who will take advantage of that faith and unquestioning obedience.  We are now living in a country where citizens bully school girls who won’t comply with the indoctrination.  In this country, the majority presents us with the choice of letting the authoritarians and their useful idiots run the country or keeping silent.  If I were religious, I’d call that a sin.

Then there are the other students who attend Cranston West who are not from a Judeo-Christian background.  What about Buddhists?  They don’t have a God either, do they?  What about Muslims?  How would the good burghers of Cranston R.I. feel if the prayer started with “Allahu Akbar”?  What about the pagans?  I particularly like this pagan prayer:

Oh Goddess Mother

Let me act in wisdom

Conquer my fear and doubt

Discover my own hidden gifts

Meet others with compassion

Be a source of healing energies

And face each day with hope and joy

Short and sweet.  It says everything the first one does but doesn’t say anything about morality.  Of course, you do have to ascribe to a non-Judeo-Christian female entity but if Cranston’s going to complain about that then it might be a violating civil rights law, not just the first amendment, by creating a hostile learning environment for girls.

In the meantime, Jessica has had to put up with a lot of, ahem, disapproval from Cranston residents:

In the weeks since, residents have crowded school board meetings to demand an appeal, Jessica has received online threats and the police have escorted her at school, and Cranston, a dense city of 80,000 just south of Providence, has throbbed with raw emotion.

State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show. Three separate florists refused to deliver her roses sent from a national atheist group.

WTF??  They won’t even deliver her roses? It sounds like Cranston’s citizens have never read the prayer they’re fighting so hard to preserve, especially the parts that ask for assistance being “kind and helpful”, “To be honest with ourselves as well as with others”,
“to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win”, “teach us the value of true friendship”, and “help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West”.  Maybe they think all that morality only applies to high school students.  I have to wonder if Cranston parents are being faithful to God if they are telling their kids to obey this prayer but are acting completely differently at home and in front of the school board.  Shouldn’t they be setting a good example for their kids?

Oh, the poor Judeo-Christians of Cranston, persecuted for their beliefs.  Doesn’t this 16 year old godless heathen know that the majority of Cranston’s residents are Judeo-Christians?  Why does she have to bring her intrusive governmental regulations into their quiet, peaceful, little village full of moral, upright citizens?  She’s probably a drug taking, low life, lazy, potential drop out who sleeps with the entire football team- all at one time. Or not.

No, Jessica is simply a minority in her school.  Well, as far as anyone will ‘fess up to she’s a minority.  I suspect that the whole honors level segment of her class, as well as the sleeper kids in the regular CP level courses, have already made the leap from “literally” true to “metaphorically” true.  It would be nice if they all had a “I am Spartacus!” moment in support of their ostracized classmate.  It would be nice, but knowing high school like I do, I wouldn’t count on it.  Minorities are minorities because there aren’t many of them.  That’s why the writers of the constitution took special care to protect them.

When it comes to matters of conscience, the first amendment was not written to protect the religious freedom of the vast majority of citizens of Cranston.  They already have that protection by virtue of their numbers.  The first amendment was meant to protect the religious freedom of the Jessicas.  And Suresh.  And Chengua.  And Rhiannon.  And Alia.  And who was it meant to protect them from?

The people of Cranston.

For more information on Jessica standing up for the First Amendment right of the minority to have religious freedom (or freedom *from* religion), check out the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  They have several podcasts about Jessica.  The latest one can be found here.

One final thing:  Honestly?  I don’t have any problem with people believing whatever they want.  I do have a problem with them proselytizing.  When you tell a religious person that you’re not interested, they need to leave you alone about it- permanently.  Yes, you can cross us off your cosmic checklist. But people who knew me on the school board know that when I was a member, I was actually quite protective of the religious Christians.  I felt that sometimes the school administration and teachers were trying to teach values to children and I don’t think that belongs in school coming from the teacher.  (Remind me to tell the story about the AIDS activist and the giant purple dildo) Values should be taught at home. If Christians want to teach their children that abstinence is the only birth control allowed, homosexuality is a sin and Darwin was wrong, that’s their business.  I happen to think they’re whacked but as long as those kids come to school exercising good behavior and respect towards their peers, I don’t think the school can credibly ask for more.  It is good citizenship that schools have the right to enforce, not values.  Yes, you might legitimately argue that the right beliefs and values lead to good citizenship but you may be intruding on someone else’s conscience in this regard and at some point, we have to agree to hold people accountable for their actions, not their thoughts.

What I have found, from personal experience, is that even if a kid is raised in the strictest household where God’s word is law, once they are exposed to other ideas, the smart ones will figure it all out for themselves.  For the rest, school officials should content themselves with compliance and tolerance and that is what they should ask of religious parents and no more than that.  Their kids are just as constrained by a system that requires their attentive presence as the more liberal parents’ children.

When it comes to changing people’s behavior and attitudes, leading by example and modeling good citizenship is much better than teaching kids values.  And it keeps the fundamentalists out of your classroom in school.


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