Anita Weier

Anita Weier was be honored as Freethought Heroine for introducing a historic ordinance to make “nonreligion” a protected class in Madison, Wis. Her first of its kind ordinance passed with no dissent on March 31. Weier, former assistant city editor for The Capital Times, served as an alderperson for two terms (2011-2015). She has a journalism degree and a library and information studies master’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked at the Las Vegas Sun, the Business Journal (Milwaukee), the Janesville Gazette, then The Capital Times from 1994-2009. She’s won many journalism awards and fellowships, including a first-place national award for the state government beat from the association of Capitol Reporters and Editors (2006).

Freedom from discrimination in Madison

Anita Weier was honored as Freethought Heroine for introducing a historic ordinance to make “nonreligion” a protected class in Madison, Wis. The ordinance passed with no dissent on March 31. Weier, former assistant city editor for The Capital Times, is an FFRF member who served as an alderperson for two terms (2011-15).

By Anita Weier

I decided to add “nonreligion” as a protected class in Madison’s Equal Opportunities Ordinance because the ordinance already protected religious people from discrimination, so it seemed only fair and equitable to protect the nonreligious.

A protected class is a group of people whom city officials believe needs protection from discrimination in housing, employment or public accommodations. Madison’s ordinance now lists 27 protected classes, including sex, race, color, national origin, citizenship status, age, handicap, marital status, arrest record or conviction record, sexual orientation and others.

I believe that discrimination against atheists and other nonreligious people is widespread, affecting employment, public school practices and selective price discounts. In Paris, 12 workers for an atheistic publication – Charlie Hebdo – were murdered. In Madison, the Freedom from Religion Foundation now does not publicize its address because of threats.

Discrimination continues

A major study, “Atheists as ‘Other,'” published by the University of Minnesota in 2006, revealed that “atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others” from a long list of marginalized groups. The study looked at attitudes toward groups such as immigrants, racial minorities, gays and Jews from the 1960s to the present, and found that every group had made great strides in social acceptance except for atheists. More Americans would disapprove of their children marrying atheists than any other class.

Locally, some businesses have offered discounts to those who show a church bulletin. The Freedom From Religion Foundation also has encountered refusals by companies to make T-shirts, print brochures or post bill- boards. Last year a television network refused to air an FFRF TV ad made by Ron Reagan.

Therefore, I believe that atheists, agnostics and humanists need to be protected when applying for jobs and housing and using public accommodations.

As you know, the Religious Right has assumed substantial control over our state and federal governments, a situation that leaves the nonreligious in a perilous situation. For instance, South Carolina’s state law requires “that the president of the University shall not be an atheist or infidel.” Texas prohibits religious tests for public office, provided the person “acknowledges the existence of a Supreme Being.” Atheists running for public office do not tend to “out” themselves.

Atheist parents have been denied custody of their children because of atheism in several states, including Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Tex- as. Imagine the furor if this had been done to parents because they were Jewish or Mormon.

Writing the ordinance

My first step in amending the ordinance was working with a city attorney to make an official proposal. I made a mistake in using the word “atheist,” which raises more ire among some than terms such as “agnostic.” Also, I realized that nonreligion could protect more people. So I amended my proposal.

I also faced a time crunch, since I would be leaving the council in April 2015, having decided not to run again. Frankly, because of dislike of atheists, I would not have introduced this mea- sure if I were running for re-election.
I waited until January to present the measure because I did not believe that the Christmas season would be a politically favorable time.

My amendment was first submitted to the City Council, which referred it to the Equal Opportunities Commission for a recommendation. The EOC in turn referred the proposal to its Employment Subcommittee. That committee approved the amendment with no opposition, though two members abstained, saying that their employers might not like their name connected to such a proposal.

I encountered more opposition at the Equal Opportunities Commission, where the vote was 5 in favor, 3 against and one abstention. Opponents tend to be religious people.

Then I started explaining my amendment to my fellow City Council members. I was very encouraged by immediate support from many, including a relatively conservative alder (for liberal Madison). Ultimately, 14 of 20 council members signed on to cosponsor the measure, which I believe took some political courage. After testimony by five atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the council approved the amendment unanimously on a voice vote. Though no one voted no or abstained, a few were silent.

I was surprised to find that my amendment was a first, that no other localities had approved such a protection. I am extremely proud of our City Council for setting this important precedent.


Freedom From Religion Foundation