Jessica Ahlquist

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Jessica Ahlquist
26-Jessica Ahlquist-1.JPG
Ahlquist, speaking at the Reason Rally in 2012
Born (1995-06-21) June 21, 1995 (age 26)

Jessica Ahlquist (born June 21, 1995) is an American activist and public speaker who filed a lawsuit in 2012 against Cranston High School West, where she was a student, to remove a religious prayer from its auditorium. The suit, Ahlquist v. Cranston, was filed with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, and was ultimately decided in Ahlquist's favor. During the lawsuit, Ahlquist received hate mail and was verbally attacked by her peers, media outlets, and online. She received death threats, and required police escorts to and from classes.[1] On the day following the ruling, Rhode Island State Representative Peter G. Palumbo spoke on a local radio show and referred to Ahlquist as "an evil little thing".[2]

Since the lawsuit, Ahlquist has received a variety of media attention, and she has been an invited speaker at a number of events, including the Reason Rally, the Texas Freethought Convention and Skepticon 5.[3]

Two high school students from other states have described their objections to school prayer as inspired by her activism.[4] She has received a number of awards, including the 2011 Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist and the American Humanist Association's 2012 Humanist Pioneer Award.

Early life[edit]

Jessica Ahlquist was born in 1995, and lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. She is the oldest of four children and the daughter of a firefighter and nurse.[2] Ahlquist's family was religious, and she had been raised as a Catholic,[5] but after her mother fell ill, she began to identify as an atheist.[6] She describes herself as "a nerd" who loves Harry Potter and Facebook.[7] When asked if the court case inspired her to get into law, she responded that law might be her future.[8]

Ahlquist is the niece of writer, artist and humanist Steve Ahlquist.[9]


In July 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to the school superintendent on behalf of an unnamed parent who complained about a banner at the school which contained a "school prayer."[10] After reading about the complaint, Ahlquist decided to sit in on the school board meetings. She also created a Facebook page[11] to raise support for the cause. At an August 2010 meeting of the Cranston School Committee, a subcommittee was asked to make recommendations about the disposition of the banner; Ahlquist attended the public meetings of the subcommittee in November 2010 and February 2011. At the end of the November meeting, out of safety concerns, a police escort was provided for Ahlquist and one other person who spoke in favor of the banner's removal.[12] At a contentious meeting of the full committee, she argued the case for the removal of the banner and a similar display at Bain Middle School.[13] The committee voted 4-3 in favor of keeping the banner in place, despite a budget deficit and the threat of an ACLU lawsuit.[14]

A lawsuit was filed in April 2011, with Ahlquist as the plaintiff.[15] The Cranston School Committee had made defense arrangements with Joseph V. Cavanagh, Jr. and The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty which represented them without charge.[16]

In the January 11, 2012 Ahlquist v. Cranston ruling, District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux of the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island ruled that a "School Prayer" banner posted in Cranston High School West was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution, in part based on the United States Supreme Court's earlier rulings in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), and Lee v. Weisman (1992), and ordered its removal.[12][17][18][19]

On February 16, 2012, the Cranston School Committee decided not to appeal by a 5-2 vote.[20] The banner was removed, intact, during the first weekend in March, and the school and city agreed to pay the ACLU $150,000 in legal fees.[21]


During the lawsuit, Ahlquist received hatemail and was verbally attacked by her peers, media outlets, and online. She received death threats, and required police escorts to and from classes.[1] An unnamed student was disciplined by the school because of threats.[22]

The Freedom from Religion Foundation ordered flowers to be delivered to Ahlquist during the trial, but two local florists refused delivery.[23] The group has filed a complaint with Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights and given Ahlquist $13,000 from support and scholarship funds.[2]

On the day following the ruling, Rhode Island State Representative Peter G. Palumbo spoke on a local radio show and referred to Ahlquist as "an evil little thing".[2] In response, her supporters began selling T-shirts with the words "Evil little thing" on the front. They committed the proceeds to a college education fund established for her.[24][25] The fund raised over $62,000 which was presented to her at the Reason Rally on March 24, 2012, where she was an invited speaker.[26][27] Ahlquist was also awarded the Humanist Pioneer Award from the American Humanist Association.[28] In 2013, she received a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in the education category.[29] Religious leaders from the Rhode Island State Council of Churches rallied to defend Ahlquist and condemn the language used to describe her.[30]

After the lawsuit[edit]

Ahlquist's uncle, humanist writer/artist Steve Ahlquist, conducted an hour-long interview with Ahlquist on March 31, 2011.[31]

Several months after the case was closed, in April 2012, Ahlquist received threatening letters in the mail from individuals describing themselves as "crusaders". Police were still investigating as of 2012.[32]

Ahlquist was an invited speaker at a number of events in 2012, spanning at least five US states and international media. She speaks at approximately one venue each month,[3] including the Reason Rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on March 24, 2012, the largest gathering of atheists in history, alongside Richard Dawkins, Adam Savage, Eddie Izzard, Paul Provenza, PZ Myers, Dan Barker and James Randi.[26] There, she was introduced as the Joan of Arc of secularism,[33][34] and presented a check for the proceeds from her T-shirt sales.[27] She also spoke at the Texas Freethought Convention in 2012.[35] Ahlquist is a frequent and popular guest on Freethought RI, a weekly radio show produced by the RI Atheist Society.[36] On June 25, 2011 she was a speaker at Center for Inquiry transnational in Amherst, New York and on February 6, 2012 in Mesa Arts Center, Mesa, Arizona, professor Richard Dawkins specifically discussed the threats Jessica Ahlquist had been receiving.[37][38] On August 16, 2011, she finished first place among the 2011 Best High School Individual Activist Award Winners, organized by the Secular Student Alliance.[39]

On February 21, 2012, Ahlquist was interviewed live on CNN about the Cranston case.[40][41] Ahlquist spoke at Moving Secularism Forward: Council for Secular Humanism Conference 2012, (March 1–4, 2012) in Orlando, Florida.[42]

Ahlquist has spoken out for LGBT issues in conjunction with Marriage Equality Rhode Island, a group dedicated to establishing same-sex marriage as the law in her state.[citation needed] She has begun to work with the Secular Student Alliance to form a humanist/atheist student group in her school.[36]

Awards and accolades[edit]

John Figdor of the Secular Student Alliance stated "she's a role model to so many young people".[43] JT Eberhard of the same organisation called for nominating Ahlquist for the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal.[44]

On April 26, 2012, Ana Kasparian and John Iadarola discussed the hate mail at Ahlquist's address in TYTUniversity, a spin-off from The Young Turks.[45][46][47]



  1. ^ a b Ng, Christina (January 18, 2012). "Rhode Island Teen's Battle Against Prayer Banner Has Gone 'Too Far,' Mayor Says". ABC News. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d Goodnough, Abby (January 26, 2012). "Student Faces Town's Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer". The New York Times. Jen McCaffery (contributing). ISSN 0362-4331.
  3. ^ a b Kotraba&, Kellie. "Teen Activist Emerges as an Atheist Hero at Skepticon". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 13, 2012.
  4. ^ Metcalf, Andrew (June 24, 2012). "Ahlquist Inspires Two Others To Contest Prayers At Their Schools". Cranston Patch. Archived from the original on July 7, 2012. Retrieved January 27, 2012.
  5. ^ Ahlquist, Jessica. "TEEN RELATES HATE SHE ENDURED FOR CONTESTING SCHOOL PRAYER - JESSICA AHLQUIST". Freedom From Religion Foundation. Jessica Ahlquist. Retrieved May 28, 2021.
  6. ^ "High school and its discontents". The Boston Globe. February 26, 2012. Archived from the original on January 18, 2013.
  7. ^ Goodnough, Abby (January 17, 2018). "Rhode Island City Enraged Over School Prayer Lawsuit". Retrieved January 17, 2018 – via
  8. ^ "John Howell interview, Beacon Communications". YouTube. January 16, 2012.
  9. ^ Steve, Ahlquist. "The personal blog of Steve Ahlquist, writer, artist and Humanist". Retrieved April 14, 2012. My niece Jessica was on the front page again.
  10. ^ Brown, Stephen (July 6, 2010), Letter to Superintendent (PDF), Rhode Island Chapter ACLU, retrieved January 29, 2012
  11. ^ "Facebook page: "Support the Removal of the Cranston High School West Prayer".
  12. ^ a b Ahlquist v. Cranston (D.R.I. November 1, 2012).Text
  13. ^ Crimaldi, Laura (October 13, 2011). "Jessica Ahlquist, Rhode Island Student, Confident Her Side Is 'Very Strong' In School Prayer Mural Suit". The Huffington Post.
  14. ^ Metcalf, Andrew (March 8, 2011). "School Committee Decides to Defend Banner". Cranston Patch. Retrieved January 27, 2012.
  15. ^ " ACLU Files Suit Over Cranston School Prayer Banner" Archived February 18, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. American Civil Liberties Union. April 4, 2011
  16. ^ Metcalf, Andrew (March 29, 2011). "School School Committee Finds Lawyers to Defend Banner". Cranston Patch. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
  17. ^ Winston, Kimberly (January 14, 2012). "Jessica Ahlquist, Teenage Atheist, Wins Case To Remove Prayer Banner From Cranston High School". The Huffington Post.
  18. ^ Schieldrop, Mark (January 13, 2012). "Police, School Officials Investigating Online Prayer Case Reaction for Cyberbullying". Cranston Patch. Archived from the original on January 15, 2012.
  19. ^ Winston, Kimberly (January 13, 2012). "Judge rules against prayer banner in R.I. school". The Washington Post.
  20. ^ Crimaldi, Laura (February 17, 2012), "Cranston Votes Not to Appeal Prayer Banner Case", ABC News, retrieved February 17, 2012
  21. ^ "Cranston agrees to pay ACLU $150,000 in legal fees, ending prayer-banner fight". Providence Journal. March 6, 2012. Retrieved March 6, 2012.
  22. ^ Armental, Maria (January 16, 2012). "Cranston student disciplined over comments against fellow student in prayer banner case; student walkout thwarted Friday". Providence Journal. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
  23. ^ Davis, Paul (January 19, 2012). "Florist found in Connecticut to deliver roses to Cranston West prayer banner opponent / Poll". Providence Journal. Retrieved January 20, 2012. After florists in Cranston and Warwick refused, a Connecticut florist agreed to deliver the flowers.
  24. ^ DeQuattro, Dee (January 24, 2012), "Rival shirts go on sale amidst the banner controversy", WPRO News, WPRO 630AM 99.7FM, archived from the original on July 7, 2012, retrieved January 27, 2012
  25. ^ Schieldrop, Mark (January 27, 2012). "As Committee Nears Appeal Decision, Banner Saga Reaches New York Times". Cranston Patch. Retrieved January 27, 2012.
  26. ^ a b "Reason Rally Official Schedule". Archived from the original on June 17, 2012.
  27. ^ a b "Atheists raise $63K for student in RI prayer flap". The New York Times. Associated Press. March 26, 2012. Archived from the original on May 25, 2014. Retrieved March 29, 2012.
  28. ^ "Teen Atheist who Brought Down Prayer Banner & Feminist Gloria Steinem to be Honored at Atheist Conference". The Blaze. May 30, 2012. Archived from the original on June 2, 2012. Retrieved June 14, 2012.
  29. ^ Lodge, Elayne (May 29, 2013). "Ahlquist receives 1st Amendment Award". Cranston Herald. Retrieved June 3, 2013.
  30. ^ Smith, Matt; Sotnik, Kathryn (January 24, 2012), "Religious group defends Ahlquist",, archived from the original on January 30, 2012, retrieved January 29, 2012
  31. ^ Alquist, Steve (March 31, 2011). Philosophy On the Ground 03 Jessica Ahlquist". YouTube.
  32. ^ Schieldrop, Mark (April 12, 2012). "Ahlquist Family Told to 'Get out of RI' in Threatening Letter". Cranston Patch. Retrieved April 30, 2012.
  33. ^ Aratani, Lori, " 'Godless Rally' in D.C. for Recognition and Respect", The Washington Post, C1, C10; Sunday, March 25, 2012.
  34. ^ "Reason Rally - About". Archived from the original on April 2, 2012. Retrieved April 7, 2012.
  35. ^ "Texas Freethought Convention 2012". Archived from the original on October 18, 2012. Retrieved October 22, 2012.
  36. ^ a b "Speakers Bureau - Secular Student Alliance". Retrieved January 17, 2018.
  37. ^ Secular Coalition for Arizona. "Dawkins, Faircloth, Cornwell, "A Secular Society Worth Saving: The Role of Religion & Secularism in Public Policy"". Archived from the original on November 9, 2013. Retrieved April 14, 2012.
  38. ^ WKAJ TV (February 13, 2012). "Dawkins On Atheist Teen Getting Christian Death Threats". Retrieved January 17, 2018 – via YouTube.
  39. ^ 2011 Best High School Individual Activist Award Winners | Secular Student Alliance. (August 16, 2011). Retrieved October 22, 2012.
  40. ^ Jessica "Evil Little Thing" Ahlquist on CNN, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science [1]
  41. ^ "STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN", CNN transcripts February 21, 2012 [2]
  42. ^ "Speakers include Stephen Law | Ophelia Benson | Daniel C. Dennett | Jessica Ahlquist | Pz Myers | Sikivu Hutchinson | Russell Blackford | Elisabeth Cornwell | Steven K. Green |George Hrab | Sir Harold Kroto | Rita Swan | and more!" [3] Archived April 14, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  43. ^ "Jessica Ahlquist, Atheist, Receives Threats Over Prayer Banner Ruling; School Board May Appeal", January 28, 2012, Huffington Post [4][permanent dead link]
  44. ^ Do?, What Would JT (April 18, 2012). "Let Obama know about Jessica Ahlquist". Retrieved January 17, 2018.
  45. ^ TYT University Hosts Talk About the Jessica Ahlquist Hatemail. (April 26, 2012). Retrieved October 22, 2012.
  46. ^ [5][dead link]
  47. ^ The Coffee Loving Skeptics » TYT on the Jessica Ahlquist attacks | The Coffee Loving Skeptics Archived February 3, 2016, at the Wayback Machine. | (April 28, 2012). Retrieved October 22, 2012.
  48. ^ Jessica Ahlquist, Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist - Freedom From Religion Foundation. (October 8, 2011). Retrieved October 22, 2012.
  49. ^ "2012 Humanist Awardees" American Humanist Association Annual Conference [6]
  50. ^ "Teen Atheist Who Brought Down Prayer Banner Wins Humanist Award". Retrieved January 17, 2018.
  51. ^ Ahlquist, Steve (August 21, 2012). "Jessica Ahlquist Honored at Touro Synagogue". RI Future. Archived from the original on March 23, 2015. Retrieved March 20, 2015.
  52. ^ "Winners Announced for 2013 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards". Reuters. Reuters. May 15, 2013. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Retrieved March 20, 2015. Jessica Ahlquist, a Rhode Island high school student, who is being honored with a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in the Education category

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