On January 11th, when word got out that a decision had been made in favor of Jessica Ahlquist concerning the "Prayer Banner" at Cranston West High School, I was in an audience of well over two hundred people at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University listening to a talk by popular historian John M. Barry concerning the subject of his new book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul. Barry spoke of Williams as a man of deep faith, a Puritan and a Calvinist, who nonetheless established a colony in the New World that was, in the guaranteeing of religious liberty to all within its borders, the freest government ever seen in history to that time.
Williams once wrote, "It is the will and command of God, that since the coming of his Sonne the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish or Antichristian consciences and worships, bee granted in all Nations and Countries." Williams was adamant in establishing freedom of conscience and freedom of religion for all manner of faiths, and even non faiths. He used the term Antichristian for Atheist because the latter term was relatively new and most likely unknown to him. But William’s intent was clear: People of all faiths and no faith were to be welcomed in Rhode Island.
To that end Williams worked to establish a government in Rhode Island that guaranteed these liberties by helping to draft a charter for the colony that was unique in the world because it contained no mention of God. Furthermore, as Barry says in his book, "It would be [Williams], not Thomas Jefferson, who first called for a 'wall of separation' to describe the relationship of church and state which both he and Jefferson demanded."
This is the awesome history of Rhode Island, and our lasting gift to future generations. The United States Constitution borrowed heavily from Williams, (by way of John Locke and James Madison) for its both its initial construction and its later adoption of the Bill of Rights. It is this legacy of freedom that allowed the Quakers, who were very unpopular with the Puritans of Massachusetts, to settle here, that paved the way for the construction of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, the oldest such building in America, and allowed Rhode Island to become the most Catholic state in the nation.
This state was built on the freedom to believe or disbelieve as your conscience dictates, and the creation of a wall of separation between church and state is the mechanism that protects that freedom.
Jessica Ahlquist was asked about Roger Williams at the Rhode Island ACLU press conference held the very next day. A reporter had been at the same John Barry event I had attended, and he asked, riffing on the title of Barry's book, "I'm wondering if you think [this verdict] goes to the American soul, if you could get heady on us here."
Jessica paused, and said, "Well, I don't necessarily believe in a soul, but if you want to talk about the soul of this country… I think yeah, this [verdict] is exactly what should be happening in America, I think this is what true American values are. This country was founded to be a secular country. We're supposed to keep church and state separate so that people can have their rights and their freedom to choose and I think that this lawsuit is a reflection of that."
The enduring legacy of Roger Williams and Rhode Island can only be preserved if there are people brave enough to take a stand and fight for it. Roger Williams would be proud of Jessica Ahlquist.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
This morning the Proidence Journal ran an op-ed I wrote in defense of my niece, Jessica Ahlquist entitled, "Roger Williams would have been proud". I'm providing a link and running it here as well.
Monday, January 16, 2012
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Saturday, January 14, 2012
Friday, January 13, 2012
Thursday, January 12, 2012
On January 11, 2012, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux ruled that the "Prayer Banner" at Cranston West High School violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment and ordered it to be removed immediately. Jessica Ahlquist, a sixteen year old atheist, had won her case.
John M. Barry speaks at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University on January 11, 2012 about his new book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. Using Roger Williams as his focus, Barry speaks about the intellectual forces that drove Williams to found Rhode Island as the first government on Earth that guaranteed freedom of conscience for people of all religion and people of no religion.
This is especially important given the present battles in Rhode Island and the United States over the separation of church and state.