Last week, Ald. Anita Weier, District 18, proposed adding atheism as a protected class under Madison’s Equal Opportunity Ordinance. Weier’s proposal reveals the increasing political power of those who identify as non-religious. Although the political power of the non-religious is increasing, people who identify as non-religious still face substantial distrust and occasional discrimination from the general public. This proposal would hope to alleviate these matters.
Madison’s Equal Opportunity Ordinance already includes “religion” as a protected class. Although not explicit and potentially confusing for those who aren’t legally trained, “religion” in Madison’s Equal Opportunity Ordinance presumably includes non-religion. Federal courts have interpreted “religion” in comparable statutes created by Congress to include non-religion; i.e., the freedom not to believe in a deity. Thus, as a purely legal matter, the inclusion of atheism as a protected class in Madison’s Equal Opportunity Ordinance may not be necessary. Even so, the inclusion is important in the social realm.
First, many people may think Madison’s ordinance explicitly only protects “religion,” and not atheism. In other words, they believe atheists or other non-religious people are unprotected. Although this is incorrect, if the new proposal is adopted, it would emphasize that people who are non-religious are also protected.
Second, by adding atheism as a protected class, hopefully people will be more aware of the various forms of discrimination and distrust that non-religious people face. This awareness may eventually lead to more societal acceptance and trust of non-religious people.
A 2012 Pew Research Center poll demonstrated that 20 percent of the American public are atheist, agnostic or not affiliated with a specific religion, including “a third of adults under 30.” This is the highest figure ever measured by Pew. Pew attributes the increase of the so-called “nones” to generational replacement, “the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones,” although many other factors are also at play. It is therefore likely that a larger and larger percentage of Americans will be in this category in the near future.
Although the “nones”, as well as their collective political power, are increasing in number, many face discrimination or distrust from the general public. As of 2012, seven states still had provisions in their state constitutions which overtly discriminated against atheists and agnostics, requiring state office holders to believe in the existence of “God” or “a Supreme Being.” These state constitutional provisions are still on the books, even though they are patently unconstitutional, as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized long ago in Torcaso v. Watkins.
Discrimination against atheists and agnostics not only comes from the government, it also comes from private individuals. A 2011 survey found that respondents significantly preferred religious candidates for “high-trust” jobs while showing a marginal preference toward atheists for “low-trust” jobs.
Not only are the non-religious — particularly atheists and agnostics — discriminated against, they are also distrusted by a large portion of Americans. A 2012 survey revealed that half of Americans find atheism “threatening.” Furthermore, almost half of Americans would be “unhappy” if a family member told them they were going to marry an atheist according to Pew.
The number of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated with a specific religion is ever increasing. Even so, they face significant distrust from a substantial portion of their fellow citizens and sometimes, even overt discrimination. Hopefully, proposals such as Weier’s will help alleviate these problems.
Aaron Loudenslager ([email protected]) is a third year law student.