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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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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.

WeThePeople
Click here to watch the ad. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is launching a new ad campaign on the "Rachel Maddow Show."

The spot starts airing tonight, Tuesday, Feb. 9, and will be running periodically as funds allow on the popular talk show, which is broadcast weekdays at 9 p.m. Eastern time.

The commercial depicts the famous lines delivered by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly on the general populace."

FFRF urges viewers to "restore respect for America's secular roots." The ad makes this appeal: "Help the Freedom From Religion Foundation defend the wall of separation between state and church. Join us at FFRF.org. Freedom depends on freethinkers."

"In this election year, we want to remind America that to be elected in the past, presidential candidates had to pledge allegiance to our secular Constitution," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Today, unfortunately, there seems to be a de facto religious test for public office."

The 30-second spot is accompanied by a piano rendition of "America the Beautiful" recorded by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. The ad concludes with the strains of "Let freedom ring" and the image of a Lincoln penny with "In Reason We Trust" replacing "In God We Trust."

FFRF debuted the TV ad in 2012 on MSNBC and CBS.

Buzz Kemper narrates the commercial, and it's produced for FFRF by John Urban Productions.

Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging Kentucky Gov. Matthew Bevin to cancel a Governor's Prayer Breakfast scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 16.

The event is problematic in many ways.

The First Amendment prohibits government sponsorship of religious occasions. Yet, the breakfast and a link to sign up appear on the governor's webpage, and the state seal is seen on the invitation. Moreover, Bevin sent out an official email on Jan. 29 inviting all state employees for the gathering.

"By sponsoring a Prayer Breakfast, which calls Kentucky citizens to prayer, you abrogate your duty to remain neutral," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in a Feb. 5 letter to the governor. "This event sends a message that the governor of Kentucky prefers and endorses religion over nonreligion and more specifically the Christian faith." 

Gaylor points out that this alienates a significant portion of Kentuckians who are nonreligious (400,000, according to a 2008 survey) and non-Christian.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution didn't pray during the four-month constitutional convention that adopted the godless and entirely secular document whose only references to religion are exclusionary. FFRF calls religion divisive, especially when mixed with government. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, "A zeal for different opinions concerning religion ... have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good."

The Kentucky governor is also misappropriating his power, FFRF avers. Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Constitution gives the executive "no particle of spiritual jurisdiction." Yet, Bevin is utilizing executive authority to organize a religious assembly. His deployment of official email for a prayer violates the state's own guidelines, which prohibit emails "advocating religious or political opinions."

"It is unconstitutional to use government resources, such as the Kentucky.gov website, official state email, and the state seal, to endorse religious rituals and solicit attendance by state employees," says Gaylor. "This not only lends the imprimatur of the governor's office to prayer and a Christian event, but it also abuses your civil and administrative authority. State employees will feel they must support a religious event, regardless of their personal thoughts or reservations, to get ahead or stay on the good side of their boss."

FFRF is urging the Kentucky governor to immediately cancel the gathering. The organization is calling on Bevin to remove the breakfast from the governor's website, and to delete any official mention in the event's promotion. It is also asking for an apology to go out to all state employees.

FFRF has a national enrollment of 23,000 nonreligious members, including in Kentucky.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

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