Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year-old atheist, angered a lot of folks in Rhode Island when she asked her school to take down a prayer banner in the auditorium. The school board refused, bowing to public pressure, so Ahlquist’s father filed suit on her behalf. Jessica won earlier this month, which only turned up the heat and condemnation from community members.
One thing that’s often lost in disputes like this is the clear tension between the majority being able to publicly embrace their religion without making members of minority religious groups feel uncomfortable. And as is often the case, the members of the majority in this largely Catholic Rhode Island community didn’t seem too worried about how they would feel if Christianity generally or Catholicism specifically was suddenly in the minority and they were subjected to state-sponsored expression of, say, Judaism or Islam.
Zachary Bailes, writing for the Associated Baptist Press, picked up on this in a very nice piece:
An irony not lost on students of history is that Roger Williams, the prodigious 17th century rabble-rouser, founded America’s First Baptist Church in nearby Providence in the name of “soul freedom” after banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Now the eventual state founded by the man who championed religious liberty long before it was popular (and some might contend that it still isn’t) appears antagonistic toward the idea.
Yes, religious liberty extends to those who choose not to participate in religion.
Baptists, Catholics and atheists don’t agree on much, but they share a common story: religious oppression. Our forebear believed that faith and God were big enough that they did not need the sword of coercion or the endorsement of a government. Baptists, fundamentalist or not, should stand up and protect the rights of atheists, even if one believes their souls are damned for hell.