Atheist teen who sued over school prayer banner to get $40,000 scholarship

By Stephen C. Webster
Tuesday, February 21, 2012 9:26 EDT
google plus icon
Fellow atheists Ellery Schempp and Jessica Ahlquist. Image: Screengrab via The Providence Journal.
  • Print Friendly and PDF
  • Email this page

An atheist blogger said this week that his online fundraiser has brought in more than $40,000 to support a scholarship fund for a girl in Rhode Island who sued over a public prayer display at her state-run school and won.

The Cranston School Committee voted last week against an appeal of a U.S. District Court’s January decision, which determined that a banner promoting Christian theology would not be allowed to remain.

The girl, 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist, told the court the banner made her feel “ostracized and out of place,” according to The Associated Press. School officials had argued that since the banner had been in place since 1963, it was “historical” and “artistic.”

Since the school committee’s meeting, which was attended by hundreds of people both for and against Ahlquist, area police have stepped up their watch on the teen, who said she’s been the target of harassment and even death threats since filing the lawsuit. She was even ridiculed by a state representative who called her “evil.”

As a reaction to the harassment, several prominent American atheists came to her defense, including Ellery Schempp, who brought a landmark case to the Supreme Court in 1963 that effectively ended legally sanctioned Bible readings in public schools. While he did attend the school committee’s hearing and had prepared public remarks, Schempp did not get to speak, so he published his comments online calling the court’s ruling “thoughtful and correct,” and even appeared in a video interview with Ahlquist.

Because of all the harassment she’s had to face, “Friendly Atheist” blogger Hemant Mehta launched an online fundraiser using the website ChipIn, asking concerned readers to donate to a scholarship fund that would be kept in a trust overseen by the American Humanist Association until she graduates.

The fund stood at $42,940 as of Tuesday morning.

“Jessica Ahlquist has stood up against her most vehement and vile critics with class and style,” Roy Speckhardt, director of the American Humanist Association, said in an advisory. “Her example shows how a fight should be undertaken in favor of protecting the freedoms we are guaranteed by our constitution. Everyone should offer a healthy measure of gratitude to her and her family.”

The video below is from The Providence Journal, featuring both Ahquist and Schempp.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
By commenting, you agree to our terms of service
and to abide by our commenting policy.