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Here’s why atheists have to fight for their rights

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Atheist teen girl holding a banner (Shutterstock)

“You atheists are just taking on the mantle of victimhood. There are laws protecting you — especially the First Amendment. Therefore, you’re not really discriminated against. And it’s ridiculous for you to claim that you are.”

Atheist activists get this one a lot. When we speak out about ways that anti-atheist bigotry plays out, we’re told that we’re not really oppressed. We’re told that, because we have legal protection, because anti-atheist discrimination is illegal, therefore we don’t really have any problems, and we’re just trying to gain unearned sympathy and win the victim Olympics. (I’d love to hear Bob Costas do the commentary for that!) It’s a classic Catch-22: If we speak out about oppression and point to examples of it, we’re accused of “playing the victim card,” and the oppression becomes invisible. And if we don’t speak out about oppression … then the oppression once again becomes invisible.

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If you’ve ever made this “discrimination against atheists is against the law” argument, I have some really bad news for you. You may want to sit down for this, it may come as a shock:

People sometimes break the law.

Theft is against the law — but people sometimes steal. Bribery is against the law — but people sometimes bribe other people. Arson is against the law — but people sometimes set buildings on fire.

Anti-atheist discrimination is against the law; in the United States, anyway. But people still sometimes discriminate against atheists.

It’s illegal for public schools to prevent students from viewing atheist Web sites, while allowing them to look at religious ones. But the San Antonio Independent School District did it anyway.

It’s illegal to make atheists swear religious oaths when they testify in court. But the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Fort Myers did it anyway.

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It’s illegal for the U.S. military to spend money evangelizing to U.S. soldiers, to demand that U.S. soldiers attend chapel, or to order U.S. soldiers to take a “spiritual fitness” test and order them to visit evangelizing chaplains when they fail it. But the U.S. military did it anyway.

It’s illegal for businesses to give church-goers discounts they don’t give to non-believers. But the Fisherman’s Quarters II restaurant in Asheville, N.C. did it anyway.

It’s illegal to deny atheist organizations the right to advertise in venues where religious groups advertise regularly. But when American Atheists and the NEPA Freethought Society tried to place a bus ad in Pennsylvania that simply had the word, “atheists,” with the names and URLs of the organizations in smaller type, the transit system rejected the ad because it was “too controversial.”

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It’s illegal to deny atheist students in public high schools the right to organize clubs. But it happens all the time. Talk to Secular Student Alliance high school specialist JT Eberhard. He spends a ridiculous amount of his working day pushing high school administrations to stop throwing up illegal roadblocks to atheist students, and to let them have the clubs they’re legally allowed to have.

And the list goes on, and on, and on.

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Talk to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, or Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or the National Center for Science Education, or the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, or American Atheists. Ask them about the lawsuits they’re filing every month — heck, every week — about public school prayersbible instruction in public schools, public schools’ promotion of faith and religious activities as “developmental assets,” government displays of the Ten Commandments and other religious texts, city council meetings and other government events being opened with prayers, religious creationism being taught in the public schools, or any of hundreds of similar incidents.

And then tell me — or any other atheist — that we don’t experience discrimination.

Getting anti-discrimination laws and court rulings is hugely important for any marginalized group. But it’s only a first step. After that, you typically have to play a decades-long game of Whack-A-Mole, in which violations of the law pop up in local venues all over the country, and have to be smacked down again, and again, and again. That’s true of sex discrimination, racial discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination in states where that’s illegal. To give just one example among zillions: It’s illegal for banks to discriminate in lending practices on the basis of race… and yet Wells Fargo just settled a $175 million lawsuit over charging higher fees and rates on housing loans to racial minorities. Not in 1946, not in 1969 — in the last decade, in the years 2004 to 2009. It’s illegal to do that. It’s been illegal to do that for decades. They did it anyway. The mere existence of anti-discrimination laws is no guarantee that those laws will be obeyed.

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So yes. Anti-atheist discrimination is illegal in the United States — and it happens anyway. I know. I haz a sad. And I’m going to have to hit you with even more bad news:

Standing up for your legal rights sometimes has ugly consequences.

Ask Jessica Ahlquist. High school student and atheist Jessica Ahlquist fought a legal battle she never should have had to fight: the battle to get her public, taxpayer-paid high school to take down a prayer banner from the auditorium. From a purely legal perspective, this was an utterly non-controversial issue: decades of legal precedent clearly supported her position, and to anyone familiar with the law, the ruling in her favor was almost entirely unsurprising.

But as a result of filing this lawsuit, Ahlquist was bullied, ostracized and threatened with violence. She was called “evil” in public by her state representative, and was targeted with multiple threats of brutal violence, rape and death. And this wasn’t just from hateful strangers trolling on the Internet — it came from her own schoolmates and her own community. This wasn’t in the Bible Belt — it was in Rhode Island.

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And Ahlquist is hardly alone. When atheist student Damon Fowler tried to stop his public high school from having an illegal prayer at his graduation, he was physically threatened, publicly demeaned by one of his teachers, pilloried and ostracized by his community, and kicked out of his home by his parents. When atheist student Skyler Curtis tried to publicize his group at his high school, his posters were torn down, the local newspaper ran a letter from a parent calling his atheism an “atrocity,” and he received threats of violence. When atheist John Kieffer protested prayers at his local school board meeting, he was arrested.

Not everyone is able to fight these fights. Not everyone is able to risk hateful ostracism and violent threats from their community. It’s hard enough for a 16-year-old high school student like Jessica Ahlquist to face down this kind of venomous hostility. It’s even harder when you’re trying to hold down a job and support your family, and you literally can’t afford to alienate your bosses and co-workers and customers. Yes, the law is mostly on our side, and atheists and church-state separation advocates generally win these lawsuits. (Although not always — more on that in a tic.) But it doesn’t do much good to have the law on your side if fighting a legal battle is going to destroy your life.

And I have yet another piece of shocking news for you. I know, the terrible news just keeps on coming:

Sometimes laws aren’t enforced.

To give just one appalling example: It is — or it should be — illegal to deny custody to atheist parents, purely and explicitly on the basis of their atheism. And yet this happens, again and again and again. It has happened in states including Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas. According to Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy, “In 2001, for instance, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld an order giving a mother custody partly because she took the child to church more often than the father did, thus providing a better ‘future religious example.’ In 2000, it ordered a father to take the child to church each week, as a [lower] Mississippi court ordered… reasoning that ‘it is certainly to the best interests of [the child] to receive regular and systematic spiritual training.'”

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Try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to parents, explicitly and specifically, because they were Jewish. Because they were Mormon. Because they were Baptist. And now, try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to a parent, explicitly and specifically because she’s an atheist. You don’t have to imagine it. This is real. This happens.

It is illegal. Or it should be. But custody laws vary greatly from state to state — and family court is something of a special case, where judges have far more leeway than they do in other courts. So this is a very, very difficult legal battle to fight. The laws against it exist — but they are very difficult to enforce.

And finally, I have one last piece of earth-shattering news that will almost certainly shake your worldview to its foundations:

Not all bigotry is illegal.

The fact that atheists are the least-trusted group in America? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that atheists are the minority group Americans least want their children to marry? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that only 54 percent of Americans think atheists could share their vision of society? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. The fact that only 54 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president — a lower number than any other group? Totally screwed-up — and totally legal. People have the legal right to not vote for an atheist… just like they have the legal right to not vote for a woman, or an African American, or a Muslim, or a Jew. It’s still discrimination. It’s still screwed-up.

And it’s still worth fighting.

Plus, of course, all of this is just in the United States, where we do have a Constitution that ostensibly gives us the legal right to not be religious. In much of the world, the situation for atheists is far worse. In much of the world, it is literally against the law to be an atheist, and to say so, and to say anything critical of religion. To give just one example of many: In Indonesia, atheist Alexander Aanwas beaten by a mob, arrested, convicted, and sentenced to over two years in prison — for stating his atheism on Facebook. (There is currently a petition to the White House, asking President Obama to speak out about the Alexander Aan case and call on the Indonesian government to correct this gross violation of human rights.)

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Is anti-atheist bigotry as bad as homophobia or racism, misogyny or transphobia? No. Almost certainly not. Not in the U.S., anyway. It’s worse in some ways — we consistently show up in polls as the least trusted group in America, and the least likely to be voted for — but atheists don’t seem to be subject to the same level of physical violence as gay or trans people, or the same level of economic oppression as women or people of color.

That’s not the point. Here is the point.

If you were mugged, nobody would tell you, “Quit whining — there are laws against mugging, you have legal protection, you don’t have anything to complain about.” The fact that there are laws against mugging did not stop you from getting mugged. It is reasonable for you to say something about it, and to express distress that it happened. And if muggings are happening a lot in your town or your country, it is reasonable to ask your community to pay attention, and to do something about it.

Atheists are getting mugged. Atheists are experiencing real, law-breaking discrimination. The fact that it’s illegal does not always stop it from happening. It is reasonable for us to speak out about it. And it is reasonable for us to expect people to give a damn. It is reasonable to expect our friends, our families, our colleagues, our communities, our country, to pay attention — and to do something about it.

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