Jessica Ahlquist looks back — and ahead — 2 years after Ahlquist v. Cranston


Two years ago this week, Jessica Ahlquist’s life changed forever.

On January 11, 2012, a federal judge ordered the removal of a “School Prayer” banner at Cranston High School West in Cranston, Rhode Island, saying that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Ahlquist—then a 16-year-old student at Cranston High School West—was a plaintiff in Ahlquist v. Cranston and effectively became its public face, appearing on CNN and in the New York Times.

Ahlquist’s involvement in the lawsuit made her the target of a massive backlash—local florists refused to deliver flowers to her, hate mail poured in and Ahlquist needed police escorts, and Rhode Island State Representative Peter G. Palumbo (from Cranston) called her “an evil little thing” in a radio interview. The outcry against Ahlquist would have been a lot for anyone to handle, let alone a high school student.

But Ahlquist stood her ground and emerged as a prominent activist for the separation of church and state, and to this day she continues to have a large number of supporters. Her work has been recognized by many activists and organizations, including the American Humanist Association, who gave her their 2012 Humanist Pioneer Award, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who named her their Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist awardee in 2011. She also received the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in 2013.

Two years after her legal victory, Ahlquist’s life has changed immensely. To coincide with the anniversary of the Ahlquist v. Cranston ruling, I spoke with the now 18-year-old Ahlquist about how she feels about the lawsuit, the backlash, activism, religious allies, what she is doing now, the advice she would give to other young activists, what she would say to Rep. Palumbo today, and much more. Below is our extended interview.


Written By: Chris Stedman
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  1. Has it been two years already? Wow.

    It’s good to see Jessica has recovered from the God-awful treatment she received for doing the right thing and is now surrounded by a far more supportive crowd. Whatever she do next, she has done and experienced more than her fair share for the secular cause.

  2. It always takes guts to stand up for what you believe in especially when it means going against the religious norm. The religious cretins who reacted so vehemently against her are too stupid to realise that it reflects far worse on them than it does on Jessica.

  3. Link broken…jcw

    PS Did Peter Pulumbo ever issue an apology, or is he not man enough to realize he libelled a minor and should be sued for public defamation of character.

  4. Hugh Hefner’s First Amendment Award?? How people and things things do get sanctified over time! Hefner’s only interest in the First Amendment was as to the Freedom Of Speech Clause, and then only to justify protecting his publishing of soft-core porn and male chauvinism. (Please don’t get me wrong–he had all the right to that protection as anyone else.) But I doubt he would have gone one step out of his way to concern himself over anyone’s freedom of non-religion. If he thought about her at all, I think he would have described Jessica Ahlquist as a Cute Little Thing.

  5. It’s also nice to see a lot of non-stupid, non-foaming-at-the-mouth contrary style comments after the original article page!

  6. What a cool kid. I like the interview, the honest account of the toll it takes to stay committed and be brave, even when you can feel so very vulnerable or down. True courage. I’m telling you, between the likes of this girl and Malala, the boys have some catching up to do. The sisters are rockin’.

  7. In reply to #5 by 78rpm:

    I completely take your point, but Hefner seems to have come to take the matter somewhat seriously, $15-40k per year seriously to be specific. That said, by comparison he also donated getting on for $1m to save the view of the Hollywood sign. His net worth is apparently $43m with an annual income of $3.5m. So for simplicity comparing this to a more ordinary annual wage of $70k (the median is about $51k), that’s akin to $30-$80 per year. I’m not sure how fair a comparison this is because of, for example, the way higher income is less necessary (in terms of meeting basic requirements, i.e. the two lowest tiers on Maslow’s hierarchy). But that seems to me like the size of donation one would make to a charity, organisation, etc one genuinely cared about.

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