MAKING HISTORY: MAKING ‘NONRELIGION’ A PROTECTED CLASS SHOULD SPUR NATIONAL MOVEMENT

Hip, hip hooray for the Madison City Council and Anita Weier

In the face of the cascade of state laws being adopted letting religionists discriminate, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce some good news: that the Common Council in Madison, Wis., last night adopted a first in the nation amendment to make "nonreligion" a protected class. This extends the same protections to "nonreligion" as "religion," sexual orientation and a host of other classes under Madison's Equal Opportunity Ordinance.

The historic ordinance was proposed by outgoing Ald. Anita Weier, formerly a reporter at the Capital Times, who found nine cosponsors after her amendment had an initially rocky reception by some subcommittees. Following testimony last night, two alderpersons on the 20-member council enthusiastically asked to be added as sponsors. The amendment was adopted by voice vote without objection.

"We encourage freethought activists — including the increasing number of local public officials who are atheists or agnostics — to work to introduce and replicate this protection at their city, county or even state levels," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

FFRF's Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Andrew Seidel testified last night, giving concrete examples of discrimination. Patrick noted festivals that give free entrance to those who attend church in Wisconsin, and told the Council how one of FFRF's plaintiffs in a lawsuit lost her job when her atheism became known. Andrew gave personal testimony and also noted that nonbelievers have been rejected as volunteers at soup kitchens, that several state constitutions forbid atheists to hold public office. (Read their effective formal testimony here, which changed minds when previously delivered at the committee level.) Chris Calvey, former director of Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA!), a University of Wisconsin campus group, noted that although AHA! is one of the largest, healthiest, best-endowed and active secular campus groups in the country, many former leaders and board members are afraid to include their volunteer work with AHA! on their resumes, concerned it could hurt employment options. Annie Laurie Gaylor's testimony about the symbolic value of protecting nonreligious as a class can be found at the end of this release.

The nonreligious are constantly on the offensive at the local governmental level, dealing with government prayer after the Greece fallout, and a campaign to plant "In God We Trust" seals in city and county chambers.

Campaigning to include atheists and other nonreligious as a protected class gives freethinkers a positive and proactive organizing tool to counter the endemic stigmatization of nonbelievers, and pressure to unite church and state.

Testimony by Annie Laurie Gaylor
Before Madison Common Council, March 31, 2015
FFRF Co-President

I'm speaking here as an individual, but can't resist pointing out the Freedom From Religion Foundation got its start here in these chambers not quite 40 years ago, back in 1976, when my mother, Anne Gaylor, and I came before this body to discuss a city state/church violation. The common council was kind enough to agree with our thoughts at that time, and the rest, as they say is history.

I'm here to encourage you to make more history tonight with Anita Weier's first of its kind proposal to explicitly include the nonreligious among the Equal Opportunity Ordinance's protected classes.

Speaking of history, back in the 1970s, another Anita, a very different Anita, Anita Bryant, got her start going before the Dade County, Fla. Board seeking something that was not nice, as Anita Weier's amendment is, seeking not to extend rights and protections, but to take them away. Bryant's ordinance unfortunately led to a national movement to take away rights from gays.

Aside from the practical applications, this amendment has great symbolic meaning. It's my hope that the adoption of this historic ordinance will seed other such ordinances to protect rights — nonreligious rights — around the country. This would be something the Madison common council could be very proud of.

This protection is much needed. In 2006, a longitudinal study was released by the University of Minnesota, called "Atheists as 'Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society."

The study found that atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups including: Muslims, gays, recent immigrants, conservative Christians, Hispanics, Jews, Asian Americans, African Americans. The researchers found that all these groups had made significant gains in social acceptance since the 1960s — except one group — you guessed it, atheists. We're at the bottom of the totem poll when it comes to social acceptance. We're the people you would last like your children to marry – we "least share your vision of America."

Polls consistently show that more Americans would not vote for an atheist for president or vice president than for any other reason.

The stigmatization of nonbelievers is reflected in FFRF's constant litany of hate phone calls and crank email, often threatening, telling us that if we're atheists or nonreligious, we don't even deserve to live in the United States.

This ordinance would go a long way toward social acceptance of the nonreligious, and we'd be very grateful if you would include nonreligion as a protected class.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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