Freedom From Religion: A Fearless Young Woman Takes a Stand

Freedom From Religion: A Fearless Young Woman Takes a Stand

Published in CounterPunch February 24, 2012

If a person is going to act fearlessly, then it’s best done when young. At least that’s how it worked out for me. Jessica Ahlquist is such a fearless person. Jessica took on the established and entrenched points of view of a large suburban community in Cranston, Rhode Island, and won. She had the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, family, and supporters throughout the country, but her battle was an individual one that resonates very clearly in this election year when some in power wish to destroy the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation between church and state.

The New York Times (“A Brave Stand in Rhode Island,” January 31, 2012) championed Jessica’s cause in an editorial and covered her case in a news article (“Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against Prayer,” The New York Times, January 26, 2012). Jessica is a self-proclaimed atheist. She took her high school to task for its display of  a student’s prayer that has hung on the wall of Cranston High School West’s auditorium since 1963. I taught briefly at Cranston West during the late 1970s, but I can’t remember the prayer in the school auditorium.

Jessica came to atheism after her mother fell ill when Jessica was in elementary school. And that was what she identifies as being the break she had with religion. Jessica’s case is all the more interesting because Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in the nation. She was labelled “an evil little thing,” by a Rhode Island state representative as her case moved to federal district court in Providence. Several florists in the area refused to send flowers that had been sent to Jessica from supporters around the nation. Local police had to provide escorts for her as the case heated the raw emotions that religious issues often tend to do. A 2009 graduate of the same school called Jessica “an idiot” in The Times news article.

In a wise decision, the Cranston School Committee voted not to appeal the federal district court ruling that supported Jessica’s attempt to have the prayer removed from her school. However, a stunned ACLU-Rhode Island representative, Steven Brown, commented on the apparent delay in removing the prayer banner from the school’s auditorium in response to the mayor of the city’s position that legal fees accrued in the case must be settled before the banner is removed. Brown questioned: “…whether this is an attempt by some petty officials to dredge up a new excuse to avoid complying with the Court’s decision” (“ACLU wants prayer banner removed ASAP,”, February 22, 2012).

Rhode Island holds a place of spectacular importance in the development of the doctrine of separation between church and state as is reflected in the First Amendment. Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, was driven out of Massachusetts in the 17th century for bucking the power of the King of England and local religious authority. Williams took King James to task for the king’s pronouncement as being the sole owner of the title to Massachusetts’s colonial lands. Williams had the audacity to declare that land would have to be bought from native tribes rather than taking title to something that he believed the British and colonists did not own. Williams further infuriated those in authority by forming alliances with the native population. As if this wasn’t enough in the eyes of the Church of England, he drew a firm line in the sand between church and state when he founded Providence Plantations in 1636 after being driven from Massachusetts for his views. I think that Jessica is the sort of high-minded person who Williams would be very, very comfortable with though they are separated by over three centuries.

Religion has come to occupy an important place in the political culture of the US. The far right has successfully injected religion into every political race since becoming a national presence in the 1970s and initiating the culture wars. The right has made religion a litmus test for candidates in local, state, and national races.

The First Amendment and I are no strangers to issues of conscience vis-a-vis Rhode Island. In 1989, I fought a First Amendment case against the Cranston School Committee. I had refused the invitation to lead a recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance before a Flag Day ceremony at an elementary school in the community (“Echoes of the Sixties,” CounterPunch, August 7, 2008). (I had not recited The Pledge since the Vietnam War.) I won a grievance against the principal who  had asked me to lead The Pledge after she began a campaign of harassment following my refusal. I received no support from any group during the grievance process because I had not actually been forced to recite The Pledge. What I recall most from the episode was the near universal condemnation I received from my fellow teachers and union for taking this controversial stand. I left the school district for a similar job in a nearby school district after having been transferred out of the school where I had refused the offer to lead the school in the recitation of The Pledge.

So, while it’s easy to rally around a cause such as Jessica’s for those who support freedom of speech and conscience, what I imagine wasn’t easy is how Jessica persevered against such bald-faced hostility.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.


The Geneva Conventions, My Lai, and Haditha

The Geneva Conventions, My Lai, and Haditha

The Haditha killings in Iraq on November 19, 2005 by US Marines have been compared to to the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre. There are many similarities between the two massacres. Both involved the murder of unarmed men, women , and children. Both massacres resulted in the deaths of elderly people. The two attacks were both driven by the motive of retribution for earlier attacks on US forces. US forces at My Lai, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, rounded up hundreds of innocent men, women, and children and murdered them in a huge pit. The retribution killings at Haditha were conducted in a somewhat different manner. Marines broke into innocent Iraqis’ homes and used grenades and small firearms to kill civilians.


There are other issues that are remarkable about both massacres. First, besides William Calley, who served hardly any real jail time, all other perpetrators of these grotesque killings were let off with punishments that amounted to slaps on the wrists. Some critics might argue that in military terms those “slaps” were tantamount to the end of the military careers of those involved, but even with an end to careers, the individuals involved in the murders were allowed to continue to live their lives, while those innocents who were massacred, and their families, had their lives snuffed out or irremediably and devastatingly changed.


The grotesque details of the 1968 massacre at My Lai galvanized the peace movement in the US. The Tet Offensive, also in 1968, did the rest, and though the killing would go on for years in Vietnam, the war began its final march to a conclusion. The domestic massacres at Kent State University and Jackson State precipitated a great outcry from the antiwar movement and people of goodwill across the US and around the world. Those atrocities were caused by the student movement’s reaction to the military incursions into Cambodia by the Nixon administration.


Haditha took place in the context of a preemptive war that followed on the heels of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and the war in Afghanistan. The US had long since shed its distaste for war known as the Vietnam Syndrome.*  Members of the administration of President George W. Bush had colluded to rewrite the rules of war. John Yoo, in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, Alberto Gonzales, Attorney General, and Vice President Dick Cheney turned thousands of years of those rules, and what is known as the Just War Theory, on its head. It was only a short distance on that slippery slope to perpetrate atrocities and condone and carry out widespread torture around the world.


Viewing these massacres from the perspective of what international law has to say about the treatment of civilians in war zones is illuminating. The following excerpts from The Geneva Conventions (1949) comprise some of  humanity’s most promising effort to codify what constitutes acceptable behavior (if indeed there can be such a thing)  regarding the treatment of civilian noncombatants during war.


The Conventions contain the words that the US agreed to after the defeat of the forces of fascism at the conclusion of World War II. What may strike readers is that the attempt to eradicate those words, developed after thousands of years of the tortuous development of the human species, by a cowboy president and his compliant underlings was so easily accomplished! His teachers, to some extent, were both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon who were responsible for millions of dead in Southeast Asia and tens of thousands of dead American military personnel. And Barack Obama seems intent on carrying on the litmus test of American Presidents: the willingness to conduct wars of dubious merit with lethal weaponry.


Protocol 1 Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949

“In order to ensure respect for and protection of civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”


“Effective advance warning shall be given of attacks which may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit.”


“When a choice is possible between several military objectives for obtaining a similar military advantage, the objective to be selected shall be that the attack on which may be expected to cause the least danger to civilian lives and to civilian objects.”


“No provision of this Article may be construed as authorizing any attacks against the civilian population, civilians, and civilian objects.”


The Geneva Conventions are not written in high-sounding undecipherable legalese. They address the murder of civilians quite directly. What amazes is how governments, as in the cases of My Lai and Haditha, can so casually cast off thousands of years of effort to protect the innocent in war!


In this era of unbridled militarism (now reaching new heights with drone attacks), the ease with which supporters of state violence cast off criticisms of masses of civilian deaths is telling. Often the excuse of a few bad apples in the military is supplied as the reason for such atrocities. Sometimes the specter of American Exceptionalism is brought into the argument to highlight the purity of US military objectives and US militarism. Often no excuse is given at all. As the Vietnam era Winter Soldier hearings (1971) established unequivocally, mindless killing of noncombatants is more the norm in war than was ever admitted by the government. The same tip of the iceberg of killings exists in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan (2008) provided the nation with yet another glimpse of the brutality of those wars from the viewpoint of veterans. With the mass media effectively silenced and placated through the use of embedded reporters, the reports of such contemporary atrocities are left to chance reporting or the consciences of lone soldiers.

  • Vietnam Syndrome was the short-lived aversion to war on the part of a majority of those in the US following the Vietnam War. The so-called “syndrome” was soon discarded in the dustbin of history through the policy of low-intensity warfare waged by Ronald Reagan in Central America. I was labelled as having Vietnam Syndrome by the Army’s Discharge Review Board in 1977.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.