Prayer Banner, Redux

Jessica Alqhuist is a student at West Cranston High School in RI. I’ve written about her before. She’s the one who noticed that her school still displayed its “School Prayer” (a relic from the 50’s) on a large banner (a relic from the 60’s) in the auditorium. Initially, the prayer was a mandatory daily recitation by all the students in place of the Lord’s Prayer. From “Heavenly Father,” right on through to “AMEN.” In the early 60’s they stopped the prayer recitation in favor of a moment of silence but never bothered to take down the banner. This year, Jessica asked that it be removed. School officials said “no,” so she took it to the school board. After a couple of raucous public hearings where people said horrible things about and to her, the board voted (against its own written policy) to retain the banner. Jessica, with her family’s support, approached the ACLU – who helped her to bring a lawsuit to force the issue.

This week, a Federal judge issued a judgement that the banner must come down immediately. The full text of the judge’s decision is a clear, lucid, and highly readable summary both of what happened and what the law says about all parts of it. It’s a good read, and I highly recommend it.

The touchstone for our analysis is the principle that the First Amendment
mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between
religion and nonreligion. When the government acts with the ostensible and
predominant purpose of advancing religion, it violates that central Establishment
Clause value of official religious neutrality, there being no neutrality when the
government’s ostensible object is to take sides.

Or, if that’s too long, he says it again later on: The Government must not appear to take sides on issues of religious beliefs.

He notes that public schools are held to a higher standard because kids are impressionable, and wraps up. As I mentioned back in April, this is a simple case.

Between the lines, the judge is pretty clear that Cranston shot itself in the foot with all the bible thumping and yelling that took place at the hearings. “The Court concludes that Cranston’s purposes in installing and, more recently, voting to retain the Prayer Mural are not clearly secular”. He’s being polite. People at the school board meeting professed their own Christian faith, screamed at Jessica, called her a witch, and told her to go to hell. The school board members themselves felt compelled to make declarations of personal faith prior to casting their votes. If the townspeople had come out and calmly said, “it’s a historical artifact, religion has nothing to do with this,” it would have been a slightly harder sell. As it is, the town revealed its religious purpose in the banner, and thus were forced to take it down.

Or, as the kids say: P0wned.

I got to meet Jessica back in June, shortly after the kerfuffle started. I’m an occasional contributor to Freethought RI, an atheist radio show. I happened to be in the studio when she stopped by to share her thoughts on the air. She’s a well spoken and charming person who seemed honestly surprised that this has become such a big deal.

At the time, I recall that I downplayed the situation to her. I remember encouraging her to not get too hung up on it. Jessica is completely in the right on this one, which is rare in life. When you’re absolutely, completely correct, my opinion is that you should go ahead and run with it. In the grand sweep of things the prayer banner is a small matter. Any actual injuries the banner’s presence caused her are incredibly slight. There are much larger fish to fry, even in the ongoing squabble between theists and non.

Unfortunately, my analysis missed something. I’ve lived in the North, in big University towns for a long time. I live in a safe little bubble where even the guy who works the cash register at the gas station probably has a college degree and some mature thoughts on current social affairs. I had forgotten what I learned growing up in the South: There are some incredibly violent knuckle draggers out there. People exist, right here in America, who will actually, literally take you in the woods and beat you to death for crimes like failing to be Christian enough, being gay, dressing the wrong way, loving the wrong person, being the wrong color, and so on.

Jessica lifted a rock and exposed a nest of those sorts of people in Cranston. She’s endured some truly vile treatment, in person and online. The comment stream on the Providence Journal articles covering the story are an open sewer of bigotry. One blogger has captured a few dozen of the juiciest pieces of online asshattery. It’s nauseating. The police are investigating the online threats that she’s been receiving, and so on.

So while I still think that Jessica should wrap this up and turn her considerable talents to more important things – I was wrong to downplay the banner. Perhaps I’m wrong to think of prejudice against non-christians in America as a solved and trivial problem. Turns out that when you go after one of their symbols, theres still a decent slice of that community who get spitting mad. Of course, they’re not running campaigns of punitive rape or using child soldiers to raze villages. What we have in Cranston are first world problems, but they are serious problems nonetheless.

The silver lining is that when the world at large looks at the situation, it seems to come down squarely on Jessica’s side. Reddit held an “Ask me Anything” for Jessica and it’s really smart. Beyond Cranston and Providence, in the broader world, commentators are incredibly supportive. That night in June on the radio show we received a record number of calls from all over the country – every single one of them expressing support.

Unless we can talk openly and honestly about things, we’ll never change any minds. It’s hard to get the bigots out in the open. They’ve learned to keep to themselves as the culture matures. You draw a lot of heat and fire when you pull them from their holes. Hopefully at least one of the violent idiots Jessica exposed will look around at some point and see that the world is laughing at them.

Changing minds would be the real victory. The banner itself is small change.

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