Last week, we brought you the story about a prayer mural that was banned in Cranston, Rhode Island, after a young atheist protested its presence in her school. On Wednesday, Jessica Ahlquist, 16, won her case against Cranston High School West when U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux ruled that the district must remove the banner immediately and pay her legal fees.
Now, a new controversy is brewing after Rhode Island State Representative Peter Palumbo, a Democrat, made comments about Ahlquist on the John DePetro Show. During his interview, Palumbo called her "an evil little thing" and said "Poor thing. And it's not her fault. She's being trained to be like that."
While the first statement may have been said in a joking manner, non-believers are equally upset with what he said next. When the show's host questioned whether Palumbo really believes the young girl is evil, he softened his rhetoric a bit, saying, "...she's being coerced by evil people.”
You can listen to the full radio interview below. Palumbo's comments about Ahlquist start around 00:20, courtesy of 630 WPRO AND 99.7 FM's John DePetro Show:
In the Humanist Examiner, Michael Stone penned his disgust with the politician's commentary:
Palumbo’s wholesale slander of an entire community is being challenged by atheists, freethinkers and other secular Americans. This weekend an intense campaign of protest began to register complaint and disgust with Palumbo’s derogatory and disrespectful remarks.
While atheists and non-believers are outraged by his statements, this seems to be only one example of the push-back the young woman is receiving as a result of her activism. Last week, following the court's decision in her favor, she shared some of the challenges she's been coping with.
"It has been a very long and difficult year for me and my family and we're just so glad it has finally been decided," Ahlquist said. "I've had to deal with a lot of harassment and negative flak from people who disagree with my views and opinions, but it's all worth it."
According to the CranstonPatch, students have threatened to beat her up, an anonymous commenter posted her home address on a local newspaper's web site and she's been called plenty of names other than "evil" by those who disagree with her stance on the mural. She's been dubbed a "witch," a "snot" and given other disparaging labels. Patch has more about how authorities are reacting to some of these actions:
Since the decision, Cranston Police said they are investigating threats made against Ahlquist on the Internet, including numerous Twitter posts by some of her classmates declaring that she should be beaten up. Some of the comments could constitute cyberbullying and represent violations of the Safe Schools Act — recently passed legislation that establishes a unified state policy against cyberbullying approved by the Rhode Island General Assembly last year and signed into law by Governor Lincoln Chafee last summer.
Palumbo's words continue to circulate in the atheist community, with some even hoping that the local politician will step down as a result.