Dispelling Egnorance – The Wayward Willis Podcast

Dispelling Egnorance

There’s a guy named Michael Egnor who has a blog he calls “Egnorance.”  I’m not making this up.  Anyway, he recently wrote a post directed at JT Eberhard asking a crapload of questions in the hopes that he’d be able to highlight how stupid he thinks the recent court decision on the Cranston High School prayer banner is.  Nevermind the guy isn’t an expert on the Constitution and nevermind he’s not a judge — he just has a really strong opinion on how wrong the experts on the matter are.  Well, because I’m bored and because it irritates me that these types of challenges sometimes go unanswered I’ll pick his post apart and address all of his questions to the best of my ability (JT already did).

In what way was Jessica Ahlquist harmed by the prayer mural?

Jessica (and any student in the district who isn’t expressly Christian — regardless of denomination) was marginalized by the banner because it expressly excluded her when it addressed a “Heavenly Father” in whom she doesn’t believe and shouldn’t be expected to because of this country’s protection of its citizens’ right to believe or not believe however they see fit.  You seem to think that “harm” doesn’t count if it doesn’t represent some sort of tangible injury and you’re wrong.  The banner violated the law and that was enough harm, even if no student ever came forward to contest it.

But if you’d like to press the issue, I’ll direct you to the kinds of threats being made toward Jessica since the court’s decision and ask you to consider the harm that this prayer banner might cause or have caused.  Jessica is already being verbally abused by Christians who subscribe to that banner.  She could be physically abused by Christians who subscribe to that banner, and the threats even go so far as to wish sexual abuse on her as well.  By Christians who subscribe to that banner!  The removal of the banner doesn’t constitute a removal of anyone’s rights, it’s constitutes the inclusion of a group of marginalized students because of their differing beliefs.

Let me ask you this: in what way is the student body of Cranston High School West harmed by the removal of the prayer banner?

Is feeling “excluded and ostracized” by a prayer on a wall the reaction of a reasonable person?

Yes.  When a banner presents a uniquely sectarian view that not everyone in the school shares, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel excluded.  I’d venture to guess that if Ahlquist petitioned the school board to post another banner stating something to the effect of, “All things I accomplish are a direct reflection of my hard work, intellect, and talents.  I’m a good citizen because I care about other people.  I live my life to the fullest because it’s the only life I get, not because of divine mandate” in order to represent students with no religion that the school board would have laughed in her face and told her to shove off.  Do you disagree?  Why, then, would it be unreasonable or irrational for Jessica to feel marginalized in this instance?

During the 50 years the mural was on the wall, how many other people reported experiencing the same harm?

I don’t know.  I stated in a previous post it’s not unlikely that because of the violent and frightening reaction on the part of the Christians in the community, any student in the past who has felt marginalized by the banner was simply too scared to come forward.  Because no student ever came forward before, we won’t really know how many people in the past 50 years have taken exception to this sectarian banner.

In what way is Ms. Ahlquist now benefitted by removing the prayer?

She (and any student in the district who isn’t expressly Christian — regardless of denomination) can now feel included in all of the activities and events that take place in the school gymnasium because she doesn’t have to be constantly reminded that she doesn’t subscribe to the popular view.  I get the feeling that you think unless she actually profits from the banner’s removal, there’s no benefit in it being removed.  You’re wrong.  Jessica can now feel (as long as the Christian students aren’t threatening her life and well-being) as much as part of the school as those who call themselves “Christian.”

Would it be of benefit to Ms. Ahlquist to learn to tolerate displays of the beliefs of others?

She already does.  On a daily basis we’re surrounded by homages to deities, both foreign and domestic, both past and present.  There are churches on nearly every corner of some of our towns and cities, billboards proclaiming Jesus on our highways, crosses in our cemeteries, and the list goes on.  We atheists don’t walk around looking for the next fight.  We “tolerate” more religious displays and beliefs than you’d like to admit.  Perhaps it would benefit Christians to learn to tolerate more inclusive displays and the non-beliefs of others, because we can all clearly see that they’re not doing it now.

Do atheists have a Constitutional right not to see religious expression with which they disagree?

It’s a fact of life that at some point in our lifetimes we’re going to see or hear something with which we don’t agree.  That’s not in dispute.  The problem is not the content, but the context.  It’s a violation of the law for a government entity (like a public school) to endorse or enforce the practice of any religion, just as it’s a violation of the law for a government entity to prohibit the practice of any religion.  When a government entity (like a public school) posts a prayer banner that is clearly sectarian, it is violating the law.  In this case, it is absolutely an atheist’s Constitutional right to demand it be removed.

If atheists don’t have that right, what standing did Ahlquist have to bring the suit?

See above.  I’d guess you already know that this question is nonsense.

What part of the First Amendment did the prayer mural violate? Be specific.

Semantic games much?  You’d be correct in saying that the Constitution nowhere says that a school can’t post a prayer banner.  I’d not argue that.  The First Amendment, however, speaks on a broader scope and prohibits this country’s government — including all of its entities (like public schools) —  from endorsing or establishing one specific religion.  There are years and years of precedence that establish this as the proper way of interpreting the First Amendment.  You can kick and scream all you like, but it doesn’t change the fact that the court’s decision is based on well-established legal precedence.

Is the prayer mural a “law” made by Congress (“Congress shall make no law…”)?

No, but it’s an endorsement of a specific religion (Christianity) and you know this.  My answer above stands.

Is the place of privilege given to free exercise of religion in the First Amendment– which is a government document– a violation of the Establishment clause, which according to Judge Lageuex prohibits advancement of religion by government?

What a retarded line of thought!  You’re asking if the establishment of the freedom of private citizens to practice their disparate religions unmolested is a violation of the government’s restriction on itself to establish a state religion?  That’s just dumb.  The freedom of religion applies to the people, not to the government.

Is the prayer mural an Establishment of religion, which means an official instutional [sic] federal church, like the Church of England?

See the answer(s) above.  This question is still a semantic game.

Is reading the prayer, giving assent to the prayer, or believing the prayer mandatory for students? Could a student ignore the prayer mural?

No, and yes.  But then, all of the Christian students could ignore the fact that the banner isn’t there too.  It’s so typical of Christians to come off with a “well, it’s not like you have to look at it” attitude when it’s something that bolsters their own views.  What about when an atheist group erects a billboard?  Do Christians feel free to exercise their right to ignore it?  Hardly.

Where in the text does the Constitution forbid the display of a religious statement that citizens are free to ignore?

You’re just being intentionally obtuse.  We’ve already addressed the Constitutionality issue.  It’s well-established that this kind of display is illegal.

Can the mere display of a prayer, without compulsion of any sort, constitute an Establishment of religion– an institutional federal church?

It most certainly constitutes an endorsement of a particular religious view (Christianity).  It doesn’t, as we’ve already stated, need to be a literal establishment of a literal church.

Many prayers and religious statements are displayed on National Monuments (Lincoln Memorial, Supreme Court, Jefferson Memorial, etc). Do these artifacts Establish a federal church? Are they unconstitutional?

No, and probably yes.  I’m not entirely clear on the specifics of property ownership in regard to national monuments but if it’s a government-owned piece of property then there should be no sectarian religious view chiseled into them.

If the prayer mural is an establishment of religion, which religion is it? Anglican? Baptist? Unitarian? Please be specific about the denomination.

It doesn’t matter which denomination of Christianity is represented.  Denomination is meaningless here.  The point is that the prayer is explicitly called “Prayer” on the banner and the form “Heavenly Father…Amen” is specific to the Christian faith.  It’s most certainly not Buddhist or Raelian or atheist and that’s what really matters — that it’s sectarian and divisive.  That’s why it’s not allowed.

Is display of the Declaration of Independence– which is more explicitly religious than the prayer mural– unconstitutional?

The Declaration isn’t an establishing document and it’s less religious than you obviously think.  The only religious portions of the document are a reference to a vague “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Supreme Judge of the world” which is not, in any way characterized as a person or as the Christian god and Jesus Christ.  The authors of the document very intelligently left these phrases vague and ultimately act “in the Name, and by the Authority of the Good People of these colonies” to separate themselves from England, and not by the authority of any supreme being — let alone one specific, named supreme being like Jehovah.

You’re also showing quite a bit of “egnorance” by asking if a document that predates the Constitution is unconstitutional.  Really?

Does the president of the United States violate the Constitution when he says “God Bless America”?

I believe so, yes.  I don’t see how it is the place of the President of the United States to call upon any deity to bless or damn America or any other nation.  The power of this country and its government is in its people, not its god(s).

Are crosses and Stars of David on the graves of soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery unconstitutional? Should the courts order that they be removed? If not, why are thousands of crosses in a federal cemetery Constitutional, but a single prayer in a local school unconstitutional? Why the double standard?

This question actually made me think.  I’m still not entirely sure how to answer it.  Much like the national monument question above I feel that government-owned property should remain non-sectarian and non-religious.  However, the crosses, Stars of David, and whatever other symbols exist in these cemeteries pertain to the individual soldier buried there, and not to the government as a whole.  There’s no push by the government to standardize all grave stones with a cross, so all faiths (or none) are represented.

There’s no double standard — at least, not in the way you’re presenting.  If every single gravestone in the cemetery were a cross and soldiers’ families were told they had to respect that, then there would be a clear violation.  Requiring school children to participate in a prayer or to observe a moment of silence while others pray is a similar violation.  Children who want to pray can do so at any point during their school day.  There’s no need for the school to sanction any particular time for it, just as there’s no need for the government to require crosses on all graves.  For the record, I don’t think religious symbols on military graves should be removed or standardized.

Are military chaplains unconstitutional? Should soldiers be denied government-sponsored chaplains, Bibles, and religious artifacts during war? If a mere prayer mural is unconstitutional in a school, why aren’t government-sponsored religious services for American soldiers in combat unconstitutional?

Yes.  Yes, and yes.  While serving in the Army I was subjected to a very Catholic blessing of weapons and ammunition with holy water — an odd, oxymoronic practice if you ask me.  I neither had the choice to remove myself from the area during the service nor the option to have my own beliefs represented in a similar fashion.  The government very clearly endorsed and enforced a religious view on me through the creation and maintenance of military chaplains and I feel it was and still is unconstitutional.

Should the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, be used to censor religious speech?

Ask yourself who is being censored.  It’s not the people (protected by the freedom of speech), it’s the government (not protected by the freedom of speech).  It doesn’t matter if you personally feel that religious speech is being censored here, because freedom of speech doesn’t apply.  The government is not a person.

Is mandatory civic atheism– the court-ordered erasure of religious expression from civic life– effectively an Establishment of atheism? If not, what would constitute an Establishment of atheism? Give examples. Be specific, please.

You’ve concocted an imaginary scenario in which the government runs around tearing down any and all religious symbols, buildings, and displays.  Since when is this the case?  Religious billboards abound, churches still stand, Bibles sit in hotel dresser drawers unmolested and the government (and the evil atheists) are doing nothing to stop it.

An “establishment of atheism” would most certainly require the abolition of any and all religious freedoms in any and all venues, public and private.  To date, no such thing has ever happened in this country.

Can there be an atheist Establishment of religion, in which civic atheism is enforced by law? What article and section of the Constitution cedes to the judiciary the authority to mandate civic atheism?

No such mandate exists, and no religious freedoms are being taken away.  This question is dumber than the last one.

When government-sponsored artists or museums display work that is insulting to Christianity (e.g. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Chris Ofili’s dung-covered vulva-festooned Virgin Mary), does that violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on government entanglement with religion?

I don’t think so, any more than government-sponsored artists or museums displaying very “tasteful” pro-religious art. I don’t want my small children witnessing murders and tortures but such art exists in the form of Jesus’ crucifixion and is considered fit for public consumption.  The truth is that the irreligious art is on equal footing as the religious art in such an exhibit and neither piece is given privilege over the other.

According to the second “prong” of the Lemon test, government may not act in a way that primarily advances or inhibits religion. Can you name one lawsuit filed by an atheist or an atheist organization that objects to government support of speech or artifacts that insult– i.e. that inhibit– Christianity?

I’ll be honest and say I don’t understand the question.  I don’t know of any atheist lawsuits that object to the freedom of speech.  Do you?  Nobody sues the Westboro Baptist Church for speaking, even though pretty much 100% of the population finds them annoying and wrong.

If government support of speech or artifacts insulting to Christianity isn’t unconstitutional, why is government support of speech or artifacts that approve of Christianity unconstitutional?

Are we still speaking specifically of two pieces of art that offend you because they depict a personality from your religious literature?  I can’t think of any government-sponsored banners hanging on school walls that say anything to the effect of, “Christianity is stupid/wrong.”  Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you’re asking.  Either that, or what you’re asking is dumb.

Can you refer me to one blog post that you’ve written in which you object to government support of speech or art that depicts Christianity in a derogatory fashion? Why the double standard?

I don’t know of any government-sponsored criticisms of religion that are on unequal footing to glamorization of religion.  If I did, I actually might write a blog post about it.  I don’t think the government should put a privileged position on either religious expression or irreligious expression.  It should remain perfectly neutral.

The First Amendment is an attempt to keep the government neutral on the topic of religion.  You are neither required to be religious nor are you required to be irreligious in this country.  You are free to believe what you want.  You are not, however, free to act as a representative of the government and at the same time voice or publicly practice those beliefs.  Your beliefs are private and personal and are best kept that way.

Jessica Ahlquist took a stand against a violent and disgusting religious monster to ensure that government stays free of religion.  As I said before, she’s a true patriot.



  1. This is very good commentary. Just one little factual correction in regard to ” Because no student ever came forward before, we won’t really know how many people in the past 50 years have taken exception to this sectarian banner.

    From the judge’s decision: “Defendants explain that, in July 2010, they received a letter from the ACLU complaining about the Prayer Mural, written
    on behalf of an unnamed family with two children in Cranston
    public schools.

    By the time the School Committee convened ……and spoke about the Prayer Mural. The first two speakers were
    the Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, Executive Minister of the Rhode
    Island State Council of Churches, and Rabbi Amy Levin of Temple
    Torat Yisrael in Cranston, Vice President of the Rhode Island
    Board of Rabbis, both of whom expressed the point of view that
    the Prayer Mural should be altered or removed.”

    Just thought you would want to know. I also made a couple of comments on Egnor’s blog under “23cal”.

    Will post a link to your commentary on Egnor’s page, if you don’t mind. This si good stuff.

  2. This was a very good read. I agree with everything you said, with the exception of your take on chaplaincy. I agree with you that the chaplaincy is grossly mismanaged in our military, but I do think that it has it’s place. Soldiers serving our country may have access to their religion when they are stateside or even on permanent posts overseas. However, when in the field their churches cannot “tag along.” As distasteful as I find religion to be, I would not deny soldiers the opportunity to practice their faith and I am not opposed to having chaplains to meet those needs. The problem is that the chaplaincy has grossly overstepped its bounds and it is very common to find soldiers who are not toeing the faith line to be forced to “fake it” or be ostracized and harassed for refusing to participate (if they are even given that option). I think that military chaplains should be soldiers who happen to be ordained ministers of their faith, who can, at a scheduled time, minister to soldiers in a designated, non-sectarian, location. Participation would be completely voluntary.

    I am sure there are nuances to this system that I am not considering. But those details would have to be worked out. But I see no problems with the system I suggested above.

    Joshua Fisher

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