Historic Madison proposal would add atheists as protected class to city ordinance

Anita Weier, a Madison Common Council member in Madison, Wis., is the sponsor of a proposal to add atheists and the homeless as protected classes under the city’s Equal Opportunities Ordinance, which offers protections in housing, employment and public accommodations. It appears to be the first such proposal in the nation.

At its initial presentation Feb. 12 before the Equal Opportunities Commission, it was referred to the employment subcommittee for discussion. A vote was set for March 12 (the day after press time for this issue) on whether to recommend passage to the council.

The EOC has been discussing adding the homeless as a protected class for more than two years. Weier told the Wisconsin State Journal that she’s seeking protections for atheism because religion is already a protected class, and she thinks lack of religion should have similar guarantees. She noted that groups such FFRF have raised concerns about discrimination.

The city already prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, color, natural origin, citizenship status, age, handicap/disability, marital status, source of income, arrest or conviction records and more.

In her blog, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted that the most typical discrimination FFRF has faced, locally and nationally, is refusal by companies to make its T-shirts, print its brochures or post its billboards. “We don’t just have problems with free speech. We have problems with ‘paid speech.’ Whether this ordinance would affect such discrimination remains to be seen. But the public has no idea how often freethought views are censored. This includes a decision by CBS last year and NBC this year to refuse to nationally air a TV ad made for us by well-known public figure Ron Reagan.” (At the end of the ad, he says, “Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”)
Gaylor suggested broadening the ordinance language to include “nonbelievers” or “nontheists” as well as atheists.

“Many nonreligious Madisonians may prefer other appellations to that of atheist. I like to joke that our members may call themselves by many an appellation — atheist, agnostic, skeptic, secular humanist, rationalist, nonreligious, etc. — but whatever we call ourselves, we all disbelieve in the same gods.”

In his testimony, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott noted, “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 referenced his experiences halting free admission for those who attend Catholic Mass at various ethnic festivals.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel testified about discrimination nationally, including state constitutions that unlawfully prohibit atheists from holding public office, shelters and soup kitchens that reject atheist volunteers, atheist parents being denied custody and job discrimination against model employees who are atheists. Seidel pointed to a complaint by FFRF in the 1990s which involved substantial legal fees to stop involving a Madison grocery from giving out free gallons of milk only to those who had attended Mass.

“If any group in this country needs protection, it’s the one that is least liked and most distrusted”—that is, atheists, according to surveys, Seidel said. “It’s time that atheists enjoy the same protections as other Americans, and I encourage this council to set an example and take this historic first step.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation