Atheist student a NYT hero

Court cases often provide story ideas for profiles of individuals and motivations behind church/state battles, but profiling one side can risk making everyone else look like the monster out to get the hero. For instance, it's hard not to feel bad for Jessica Ahlquist, an outspoken atheist who successfully sued to get a prayer removed from her high school auditorium after reading the New York Times profile. After all, a state representative called her “an evil little thing,” according to the story.

Here's how Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta promotes the piece.

The New York Times‘ Abby Goodnough has a summary of Jessica Ahlquist‘s lawsuit in Friday’s paper and Jessica comes out of it looking exactly like the hero she is. (Her opponents, not so much.)

Atheists don’t always get positive coverage in the media, so it’s an encouraging sign, especially after everything Jessica’s been going through:

The thing is, shouldn't coverage be fair to both sides, at least in theory? It shouldn't be a win for the atheist community if it's a poorly written story, right? In making Ahlquist into a hero, the story pits her against the not-so-thoughtful opposition:

Brittany Lanni, who graduated from Cranston West in 2009, said that no one had ever been forced to recite the prayer and called Jessica “an idiot.”

“If you don’t believe in that,” she said, “take all the money out of your pocket, because every dollar bill says, ‘In God We Trust.’ ”

There an image of the prayer, but why doesn't the story quote the full text of the prayer, since it's the subject of debate?

“Our Heavenly Father,” the prayer begins, “grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful.” It goes on for a few more lines before concluding with “Amen.”

"It goes on for a few more lines..." (Blah blah blah) What a weird way to skip over the whole point of the story.

Speaking of photos, the images of Ahlquist all look defiant, strong, hero-like, when the photo of the principal makes him look concerned, doubtful, or something, though it's unclear if he has taken a personal stance on the issue.

Remember the time when I said that apparently all it takes to get the Times' attention is building a Facebook fan page? Here we go again:

She also started a Facebook page calling for the prayer’s removal (it now has almost 4,000 members) and began researching Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious freedom.

Why not add a little bit more background on Williams, a theologian who started the first Baptist church in America? And an additional section of the article made me pause.

New England is not the sort of place where battles over the division of church and state tend to crop up. It is the least religious region of the country, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But Rhode Island is an exception: it is the nation’s most Catholic state, and dust-ups over religion are not infrequent. Just last month, several hundred people protested at the Statehouse after Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, lighted what he called a “holiday tree.”

Sure, New England is no Bible Belt, but I might assume that would make church/state cases even more likely. Using data from Pew about the religiosity of the region doesn't necessarily help measure church/state battles are higher or lower than other parts of the country. At the very least, Massachusetts and Connecticut have recently dealt with a number of cases.

Superhero image via Shutterstock.

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