Making history: ‘Nonreligion’ now protected class

The city council in Madison, Wis., adopted on March 31 what’s believed to be the nation’s first city ordinance making “nonreligion” a protected class. The historic action extends the same protections to nonreligion as it does to religion.

Madison’s equal opportunity ordinance now bans discrimination based on “sex, race, religion or nonreligion, color, national origin or ancestry, citizenship status, age, handicap/disability, marital status, source of income, arrest record or conviction record, less than honorable discharge, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic identity, political beliefs, familial status, student, domestic partner, or receipt of rental assistance.”

The ordinance change, which initially met a rocky reception, was proposed by outgoing Alder Anita Weier. Testimony of FFRF Staff Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Andrew Seidel appeared to convince a subcommittee to recommend approval to the council. Eventually, 14 members of the 20-member council agreed to sponsor it, and it passed by voice vote without dissent.

The Wall Street Journal reported it April 2 with the headline “In Madison, nonbelievers have religious rights too.”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor hailed the proposal for its symbolic signficance. However, it also carries penalties of $100 to $500, and means the city’s Equal Opportunities Commission can investigate complaints of discrimination by nonbelievers, Weier pointed out.

Weier, who describes herself as “not religious,” told the Wall Street Journal: “Since religion is protected in our equal opportunities ordinance, in all its variations, I thought that nonreligion should be, too. I just think there is a general stigma about it. I don’t think people should be afraid to say what they they think.”
Elliott and Seidel testified with concrete examples of discrimination. Elliott noted ethnic festivals in Wisconsin give free entry to church-goers (successfully contested by FFRF) and told how a plaintiff in one of FFRF’s lawsuits lost her job when her atheism became known. “Having worked to protect the civil rights of nonreligious persons, I can tell you that discrimination against atheists is widespread and an ongoing concern. It permeates into employment, public schools and even in discounts offered by places of public accommodation,” Elliott testified.

Seidel noted that nonbelievers have been rejected as volunteers at soup kitchens and that several state constitutions forbid atheists to hold public office. “We see discounts to religious people, which effectively charge atheists a higher price for the same goods. Here in Madison, one store gave out free gallons of milk to Christians, while forcing atheists to pay full price. Schools block atheist groups from forming and filter out atheist and freethought websites,” he said.

Seidel told the council: “If any group in this country needs protection, it’s the one that is least liked and most distrusted. When it comes to voting for an otherwise qualified candidate, atheists rank below Jewish, Mormon, LGBT and Muslims. We fall 14 percentage points below a gay or lesbian candidate, simply because of our irreligion.”

Chris Calvey, former director of Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted that even though AHA is one of the most successful secular campus groups in the country, many of its student leaders are afraid to list their volunteer work on their résumés.

FFRF Lifetime Member T. Kozlovsky referred to surveys and polls routinely showing that atheists and nonbelievers are the most distrusted.

Gaylor noted that secularists usually are on the defensive when going before local governmental bodies, such as protesting prayer.

Back in the 1970s, a very different kind of public servant, Anita Bryant, went before a government board in Dade County, Fla., seeking not to extend rights and protections, as Anita Weier is doing, but to take them away, Gaylor noted.

“Bryant’s ordinance unfortunately led to a national movement to take away rights from gays. It’s my hope that the adoption of this historic ordinance will seed other such ordinances to protect rights — nonreligious rights — around the country.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation