Bring back the witch burnings! The brouhaha involving Rhode Island high school student Jessica Ahlquist, 16, who requested her school remove a prayer banner invoking '"Our Heavenly Father," serves to illustrate how the ideals of the American Founders have been trampled and corrupted by religious fanatics in this country.
Ahlquist made a simple request to preserve what is called the "separation of Church and State," based on the "Establishment Clause" of the American Constitution. For her efforts, she's been viciously attacked with all kinds of insults, hate speech and threats of violence, including death, with a Rhode Island state representative suggesting she's an "evil little thing."
However, it is Ahlquist's Constitutional right to attend a secular public school. If others wish to attend religious schools, there are plenty of those in this country. Our public schools must be kept secular, teaching religion only from a dispassionate and uninvolved perspective. Otherwise, religion must be barred from public schools. No proselytizing, no school prayers - nada.
This Constitutional "wall of separation" was further solidified by a woman named Vashti McCollum, who sued her local school board over religious indoctrination and won, in a Supreme Court ruling in 1948:
Vashti McCollum, a self-described humanist from Champaign, Ill., challenges the practice of allowing students in public schools to attend voluntary religious instruction during school hours, on school property. When her son and other students chose not to attend the classes, they are left to study alone in an empty room. McCollum sues the local school board; her family is subjected to harassment and hate mail; the family cat is lynched. The case reaches the Supreme Court, which rules 8-1 in favor of McCollum, saying the practice of holding religious classes on tax-supported property violates the Establishment Clause.
As Charles Shaynes points out, Ahlquist's request is in line not only with the American Constitution but also with the wishes of the founder of the State of Rhode Island, Rev. Roger Williams (c. 1603-1683), himself a theologian and "deeply religious Christian minister":
Williams, who was himself verbally attacked, was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for objecting to the entanglement of religion and government that, he believed, corrupted both.
He founded Rhode Island as the first government in history with no established religion and a commitment to protect liberty of conscience for every person. As a deeply religious Christian minister, Williams vowed to put an end to centuries of oppression and coercion by erecting what he called "a wall or hedge of separation" between the "Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the World."
Rhode Island was to be a "haven for the cause of conscience" where government stayed out of religion and all people (including Quakers, Catholics and others persecuted in surrounding colonies) would be free to choose in matters of faith.
If he were alive today, there's little doubt that Roger Williams would be solidly in Jessica's corner. He would view the "school prayer" banner as blasphemous state appropriation of religion. However big or small the issue, Williams believed that any state entanglement with religion violates conscience, divides society, and (most important for him) offends God....
"Jessica Ahlquist is clearly an articulate and courageous young woman, who took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community."
Fortunately, the federal judge in this case - who made the above quote about Ahlquist - saw fit to uphold the Constitution and ruled in her favor. Naturally, the hate speech and death threats have continued to fly.
In the final analysis, the hate speech, death threats and irrational religious fanaticism displayed in Rhode Island could be deemed "un-American" and "anti-American," as well as illegal and/or immoral. Jessica Ahlquist is the true American in this situation, following the ideals of the American and Rhode Island Founding Fathers.
Moreover, I personally find the idea of a "Heavenly Father" to the exclusion of all other divine concepts, including the "Heavenly Mother" or, perhaps more appropriately, the "Earthly Mother," to be offensive to my religion. It is a sexist and human-derogating notion that I reject - so, these spewers of hate speech and death threats are offending my religion.
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