Jessica Ahlquist Decision Reached

Edit: Please encourage other students to do things like this by contributing to the Jessica Ahlquist scholarship fund set up by Hermant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist) available here.

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I just got done reading the official court decision in the Jessica Ahlquist case written by U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux. Jessica is currently a 16 year old high school student in Providence, RI. An overtly Christian prayer has hung in her high school since the 1960s. She’s an atheist and was suing the school for violating her constitutional rights.

She won the case, whose decision was announced today. I met Jessica along with two other high school students — Zack Kopplin and Damon Fowler — at the CFI Student Leadership Conference in April. The judge’s comments in the decision reflect what I thought both of her and the two other high schoolers:

Plaintiff [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.


If anyone would like to read the decision for themselves, it’s available here. The decision gives an excellent review of the constitutional issues and court precedents involved. It also details the kind of community persecution and oppression that Jessica faced, something all too common in situations like this. The words “tyranny of the majority” and “Christian privilege” come to mind.

There is something intriguing about the way that what was a religiously homogeneous community transitions to the kind of plurality or diversity found in the modern era. To me, observing this kind of behaviour brings back the research I’ve seen from Jonathon Haidt on the moral psychology of social conservatives versus those of social liberals. As is sometimes expressed, conservatives like Leave it to Beaver, looking back to a culturally remembered Golden Age (in fact, Glenn Beck has explicitly compared this supposed Golden Age to Leave it to Beaver.) They want things that seemed dependable and are against change — often, that means being against diversification of the populace. They want to protect the stability of social and cultural institutions that they have come to depend upon or to expect. On the other hand, liberals are compared to Star Trek — looking to the future, towards a broadening of the populace, and towards the discovery of new knowledge.

As we embark on this odyssey into the future, the population will unavoidably become more inhomogeneous. Nonetheless, as we continue to pursue the goals which Jessica fought for here, I think it’s wise to observe — if only for dispassionate scientific reasons — the feelings and actions of our opponents. Besides, from a more pragmatic perspective, understanding some of the sociological and psychological factors which give rise to these behaviours can aid us in bettering the society in which we live. Instead of simply watching people harass this poor girl and thinking about how crazy they are or wondering where this country is going, we can understand their behaviours as a palpable maelstrom of cognitive dissonance, a perfect storm of tribalism.

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