Though atheists face less persecution and discrimination in the United States as compared to many other countries, nonbelievers are still often viewed as "lesser Americans," according to a new report released by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

The international umbrella organization for humanist and atheist groups published "Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious" (PDF) to mark the U.N.'s Human Rights Day on Monday.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has succeeded in creating "an exceptionally open society," according to the report. But atheists and nonbelievers are still marginalized, culturally and even legally.

"[T]he U.S. has long been home to a social and political atmosphere in which atheists and the non-religious are made to feel like lesser Americans or non-Americans," the report states. "A range of laws limit the role of atheists in regards to public duties, or else entangle the government with religion to the degree that being religious is equated with being an American, and vice versa."

As examples, the report notes that the United States included the phrase "under God" in its Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as the national motto two years later. Many legislative bodies, including both houses of Congress, begin meetings with a prayer, which is sometimes led by a Christian pastor.

In addition, the state constitutions of Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas prohibit atheists from holding public office. Though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such constitutional provisions violate the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom, they still remain enshrined in the states' constitutions.

"The prevailing social prejudice against the non-religious reinforces, and is reinforced by, the political support for religious, especially Christian, privilege," the report states.

However, the troubles faced by atheists in the United States pales in comparison to the situation of nonbelievers in other countries. Nonbelievers and religious skeptics have been arrested for blasphemy in countries like Indonesia, Tunisia, Turkey, Greece, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Egypt. Russia plans to enact a new blasphemy law next year, after imprisoning members of the punk band Pussy Riot for protesting at a Russian Orthodox cathedral.

[Image via Flickr user abiodork, Creative Commons licensed]