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Controversy Over Atheist Speaker at York Reaches Wide Audience

Jessica Ahlquist, who sued her school to have a prayer removed from the gymnasium wall, is speaking to government students Tuesday, during Constitution Week.

What started as muted frustration among some parents of York High School government students over the choice of a speaker for Constitution Week is now a multi-pronged debate—in some cases heated—between educators, parents, atheists and the Illinois Family Institute.

Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst selected this year's speaker for Constitution Week, as they have for the past two years.

"The CAC does the legwork as far as finding and selecting speakers and we make ourselves available that week for the person to come to our school," said Charles Ovando, Research and Social Sciences Division chairman at York.

The speaker this year, 17-year-old Jessica Ahlquist, is an atheist from Rhode Island who filed a federal lawsuit to force her high school to remove a religious banner that had hung in the school's gymnasium for 49 years.

Atheism is a polarizing subject, as Ahlquist found. She won her battle to have the prayer removed, but bullying and threats in her school and community forced her to withdraw from school.

And here in Elmhurst, a predominantly Christian/Catholic community, the polarization continues. The CAC refers to Ahlquist as a "defender of free speech" who stood up against tremendous adversity in the name of democracy. But some parents see the visit as a means to thrust liberal talking points on teenagers.

'We Could Have Done Better'

Parents say the permission slips brought home last Thursday provided no information about the nature of the assembly, only date, instructor's name, and that it is a presentation sponsored by the CAC.

"I didn't even know what the CAC was," parent Nancy Cramblit said. "It included no information about the speaker. With no information, it's not open and transparent."

The permission slip is not really asking parents' permission to allow their kids to hear the speaker, Ovando said in a phone interview Monday. It's required by law when a student has to leave his regular classroom to attend another school-sponsored event.

"There is some confusion surrounding the permission slip," Ovando said. "We're asking them to leave their (regular) class to attend this government lecture. It's not designed to illustrate the curricular purposes of a field trip."

Ovando did say there were things they "could have done better."

"In hindsight, we could have communicated better what it was about, we could have put things on our website sooner, encouraged students to talk to their parents," he said. "I certainly think we could have put a description on the back of our permission slip, not because we're concerned about backlash, but because it's always good when the school is open with the community about what's going on in our classrooms."

As of Monday evening, he had updated the department website regarding Constitution Week to provide a "more comprehensive rationale" for Tuesday's presentation. The Constitution Week page can be found here.

Email Chain

Cramblit has been keeping a couple dozen families in the loop regarding her email correspondence with District 205 staff members, and a number of those parents have corresponded with school staff on their own.

"Everyone on my email list thinks it's disgusting, ridiculous and definitely a leftist move," Cramblit  said of bringing Ahlquist to the district.

One parent addressed Superintendent David Pruneau on Monday, saying, in part, that teachers are more interested in "brainwashing a captive audience with the latest liberal talking points" than teaching core values and citizenship.

"You like to say that character counts in this town. Really? I hadn't noticed," the parent said.

Pruneau's response, in part, was that the goal in bringing the speaker for Constitution Week "is not to promote her or her particular point of view, but rather to serve as a catalyst to engage our students in discussions about constitutional interpretation that result in a deeper understanding of the complexities of the Constitution and our democracy."

Also creating controversy is Ahlquist's intended message. Will she be speaking on the Constitution? Bullying? Standing up for a cause she believed in?  

To Ovando, one of the messages Ahlquist is bringing is courage.

"She's not portraying herself as a legal expert. We're not having Jessica speak to our students because she is going to be an expert in explaining the Establishment Clause," he said. "What is compelling about her is that she was courageous enough to speak out about something that was important to her."

The lesson he wants his students to take from the assembly is that no student should feel ostracized for their beliefs.

"Here's a kid who was in a minority in terms of her religious belief system and she stood up for herself. I want all our kids to feel that is something they can feel safe doing in our school. Whatever ethnic background, religious background, sexual orientation, we want all our kids to feel safe."

Illinois Family Institute

When the Illinois Family Institute entered the fray, Laurie Higgins, an IFI cultural analyst, asked Maryam Judar of the CAC the same question: What is the message? 

"I was told that since Ahlquist is only 17 years old, 'she won't be able to speak articulately on the First Amendment issues' but rather that she would be talking about advocating for an issue about which she cares deeply and about being bullied,' " Higgins wrote. (Judar claims she was misquoted.)

"… Of course bullying is an important issue but unrelated to the constitutional issues about which Ahlquist was ostensibly invited to talk."

This is a problem, Higgins wrote, because "The goal of transgressive activists and teachers who see themselves as 'agents of change' is to make students feel as if their philosophical disagreement with ideas is tantamount to bullying people. So, if Jessica Ahlquist were to tell students about being bullied, students would be less inclined to increase her suffering by expressing their disagreement with her atheism or her political cause."

Her article ends with a call to action and a place for those who object to the presentation to post comments that will be forwarded to school officials at York and the other two schools hosting Ahlquist. As of Monday afternoon, the site had nearly 100 responses.

Read the full article here.

By Monday night, Higgins said an "unusual number of atheists from around the country" also had gotten on the IFI site to support those schools that invited Ahlquist to speak. Hemant Mehta, the self-described "Friendly Atheist," slammed Higgins' article in a blog post of his own.

Question of Balance

Was Ovando ever concerned about the choice of Ahlquist as the speaker?

"Not really," he said.

Ovando said the goal is always to find speakers students can identify with and bring cases to life that otherwise would be abstract.

"A speaker like Jessica raises no more concerns in my mind than if we brought in a speaker who was a student activist against abortion. It's not the issue itself that is as important as, 'Is this a legitimate case? Is this a presentation that can stimulate a lot of good discussion in the classroom and raise passionate debate about national issues? Does it connect to our curriculum?'"

When asked if the school had ever brought in a conservative speaker—an anti-abortion activist—Ovando said it has not.

"But it is something that I think we should always be conscious about," he said. "It's the third year we've done this with the CAC in terms of Constitution Week. Looking forward, I would certainly welcome speakers on particular issues that land any place on the spectrum."

He disagrees that there is a "left-wing agenda."

"I understand that is what some parents are saying," he said. "To me, that doesn't resonate. An agenda would suggest we are bringing her in because we are trying to promote her particular belief system. We're bringing her in because she was a participant in a federal court case that helps illustrate something we study in class.

Opting Out

Cramblit's son, a senior, will not be attending the assembly Tuesday. He decided that on his own. She also said she knows of several parents who decided for their kids that they will not attend.

"It's always a punishment for those of us who opt our kids out," she said. "Then our kids are isolated and they have that diminished experience. This is what divides families. They don't want to be isolated. They don't want the diminished experience, so they won't tell you what's going on at school."

Cramblit says her goal was never to get the school to cancel the speaker, but rather to gain more transparency for parents and a sense of balance in the information reaching students.

On Solid Ground

Is Ovando surprised at the parent backlash?

"No, I'm not," he said. "Being a community that's primarily Catholic or Christian, it doesn't surprise me that someone who is atheist would get a second look in terms of what this presentation is about.

"(But) I think we're on very solid ground as a school because of how we use presentations like this in our curriculum."

Ovando said he has "a foot in both worlds."

"I've been reflecting on this quite a bit," he said. "I have three kids (in elementary school). I know that with their friends, in the hallways and in classrooms they're going to encounter things that as their dad I might have some concerns about.

"First of all I have a lot of trust in the schools and the teachers. But secondly, I know that in my home, we talk about things. The moral compass my kids are going to get—I don't expect the schools to be doing that. I expect that to be something that we work on together in our home."

Cramblit still sees the presentation as "just a leftist move."

"I don't blame Mr. Ovando for not recognize it as such, but that's why it's important they give parents the truth, because we can help with that," she said. "It's simply a matter of doing what we have the right to do with our kids."

Robert E September 25, 2012 at 05:23 AM
MK I asked god if he exists and she said no.
Robert E September 25, 2012 at 05:52 AM
OK, now let me see if I got this straight, because what it sounds like you're telling me is that God sent His boy to His people so that His people could kill His Boy in order to save them from the wrath of.....God.
Independence666 September 25, 2012 at 10:35 AM
Robert E., God does send people to hell. People are allowed to freely choose between heaven and hell. It is obvious that you have chosen to reject God's free gift of salvation, so you are choosing hell. So much pride...........So sad...........
MK September 25, 2012 at 12:16 PM
http://mobile.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2%20thes%202&version=ESV 2nd Thessalonians chapter 2 says it best.
Cronan September 25, 2012 at 03:55 PM
NO, THIS is the bottom line: We often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. You dig?
Robert E September 25, 2012 at 04:53 PM
I am not rejecting your god I never accepted him in the first place. I am not going to hell hell does not exist just like your god does not exist. If you want to play with your imaginary friends thats up to you but don't try to force your delusions on me. It time to wake up and start living in reality. Christ did not die for my sins because I dont beleave in you god I cant commit a sin against him.
MK September 25, 2012 at 07:13 PM
My open mind read this: John 12:44-50 "Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say."" Then in John 14:6-7 " Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”"
Cronan September 25, 2012 at 08:07 PM
Rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. (i.e. John 12:44-50) You dig?
Robert E September 25, 2012 at 11:35 PM
Let me put this in a way I hope you christians can understand. Turn away now from jeaus or zeus will strike you dead with a thunderbolt. does tha convince you? No. that is how I feel when you quote to me from the bible. I don't believe in your god so it is the same as when I threaten you with zeus. There are some truths, however, that we should never forget: Superstition has always been the relentless enemy of science; faith has been a hater of demonstration; hypocrisy has been sincere only in its dread of truth, and all religions are inconsistent with mental freedom.
Middleschoolnarc September 26, 2012 at 12:37 AM
Robert are you under the influence? I am sorry but your ranting does not compute. Do you have a misanthropic outlook on life that probably stems from a childhood filled with physical and emotional abuse? No Satan does not jump in your head, it is your ego! The contradictions that you speak of are due to placing the Old Testament with the 4 gospels and mixing it with Paul’s writings. Law vs.Grace. 2 Timothy 32:16 does not exist. For your enlightenment Paul is not condemning anyone, in his epistles he is explaining the freedom that we now enjoy today. Law vs. Grace. This is actually verified by Peter in what you stated 2 Peter 3:16. Please read vs.15. It is directed at you and other with no faith.
Middleschoolnarc September 26, 2012 at 12:37 AM
A real shot to Heaven is simple, you and others will not have an excuse, you have been mislead or are ignorant of 1Corinthians 15:1-4 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to wisdom given him, vs.16 as he does in all his letters....things hard to understand which ignorant people and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. Robert SOMEONE is directing you to these scriptures to lift the veil from your eyes, pay attention. And yes, yes, I repeat yes, Colossians 2:8-9 is for you. I will also take my little brain with a lot of wisdom from God, my Savior Jesus Christ. And for you enlightenment, he was not a little boy sent by God. He was GOD in human form so he could suffer for you, me and others. This is the reason that He is the only way to Heaven thru HIM with HIM. Are you a father? Well if you are then you would suffer for your kids, prevent them from getting killed. (Eternal death). May God open your heart.
Middleschoolnarc September 26, 2012 at 12:39 AM
This is awesome, let's keep it going. God Bless
Independence666 September 26, 2012 at 10:29 AM
Good luck, Robert E. It's all you've got.
Independence666 September 26, 2012 at 10:34 AM
Good luck Robert E. Have a nice life here on earth. It's all you've got.
Cronan September 26, 2012 at 02:07 PM
"Robert SOMEONE is directing you to these scriptures to lift the veil from your eyes, pay attention." Whoa! You got me! Robert, it is I. I have been directing you to these scriptures so that you may convince the world, one kool-aid drinker at a time, of your beliefs. (just think George Burns and "Oh God!")
Robert E September 26, 2012 at 04:34 PM
All I can say is a 17 year old girl took on your all powerful god and your god lost. The Bible, The Koran, The Book of Mormon, and other books are supposedly the word of God. Many other works are supposedly inspired by God, gods, god-like aliens from the Pleiades, etc. Why should I accept your favorite, and not one of the others? If God has personally told you that the Bible is His word, why should this out-weigh his personal communication to me saying that it isn't?
Middleschoolnarc September 27, 2012 at 02:41 AM
Robert and Cronan all I ask is for you gentllemens to ask a simple question to your soul, why is middleschoolnarc taking time to continue in communicating with us. I have never asked you for money or to join a denomination. There is nothing to personally gain from this discussion. For you however there is a lot to gain and hell to lose. Again nothing for me, I already have received the gift of salvation. May the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ continue knocking at your heart. Time is running short. God Bless
Michael Regan September 27, 2012 at 03:14 AM
All this talk about Jesus Christ, telling God to bless our souls, or any talk of other religions is unnecessary. A person's opinions of eternity and the afterlife have nothing to do with how our government or school systems are ran, so maybe both sides can call it a quits and stop getting off subject. TIme is not running short. Evil will not consume a person's soul if the don't bow down to an entity they don't believe in. If you want to believe that, be my guest, but don't let your spirituality get in the way of conversation dealing with public affairs that are unrelated to any ideas of faith.
Michael Regan September 27, 2012 at 03:14 AM
An excerpt from Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth: 'Well, sir, you believe in the existence of God?' 'I do,' said the man in a low tone. 'You also agree that the circumference of the Earth is 28,000 miles, don't you?" said the atheist with a smile of self assurance. 'Indeed.' 'Pray tell me then the size of your God and where he may be?" 'Well, if we but knew, He resides in the hearts of us both.' 'Now, now, don't take me to be a child,' said the champion with a triumphant look at us. The clergyman assumed a humble silence. This talk still furthered increased my prejudice towards atheism.
Michael Regan September 27, 2012 at 03:20 AM
My response: If atheism is the lack of belief in a god and God "resides in the hearts" of men, then a religious person could say that an Atheist doesn't believe in life. Yet, both think the other is blind, therefore, both do not understand life because they do not understand each other. Take this idea and apply it to any belief versus any belief. If people aren't willing to understand both sides to a story and conclude their own beliefs rather than referencing one bias that is evident in a continuous stream of sources that only support their claim, they will only further the distance between the compromise that man must create in order to survive. Compromise. That's the issue because people aren't willing to create one.
Middleschoolnarc September 27, 2012 at 03:29 AM
Michael since you believe in luck instaed of a loving God, well good luck.
Elmhurst Resident September 27, 2012 at 01:08 PM
I don't get it? Having a relationship with Jesus Christ gives you love, light, hope and a peace that passes understanding.....who wouldn't want that?
Cronan September 27, 2012 at 07:24 PM
I have love, light, hope and peace...it's called family. That's what I believe in and what I preach. FAMILY. Make time for it. Word.
Cronan September 27, 2012 at 07:28 PM
"why is middleschoolnarc taking time to continue in communicating with us? " Because Middleschoolnarc is batshi* crazy...
Pamela Redmond September 27, 2012 at 09:02 PM
Hey Cronan you have no idea what love is, and I am sure you have no peace in your heart. Look at your stupid hateful comments directed at others. Yes I do think your brains were turned off when you were born. The facts driving my beliefs toward you are that you are a goof. Do you dig?
Michael Regan September 27, 2012 at 09:11 PM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeSSwKffj9o&feature=related
Robert E September 27, 2012 at 09:17 PM
Matthew 7:1-6 Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you Matthew 5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Cronan September 27, 2012 at 09:30 PM
Chillax Pamela, find a little piece (peace)sp?
Cronan September 27, 2012 at 09:31 PM
George Carlin, wise man...
Independence666 September 29, 2012 at 03:37 PM
Let them be ER. These contrarian jokers are just playing with you. They are obviously posting whatever it takes to get a rise out of people.

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