Rereading my post from Friday, I notice that I never actually answered the question I posed in the title. Is atheism a civil rights issue?
Happily, other bloggers have stepped into the breach. Mike Dunford gets us started:
Atheists, unfortunately, do face a great deal of discrimination. Actually, I should rephrase that. The discrimination is not faced by all atheists. It’s faced by those people who, for whatever reason, choose to publicly identify themselves as nonbelievers. For one set of examples, you need look no further than child custody cases. Volokh has a laundry list of appeals court cases dealing with child custody. In all of these cases, judges – people sworn to uphold the Constitution – decided that a religious upbringing is “in a child’s best interest,” and used that as a factor in restricting custody rights of non-religious parents. There are plenty of other examples, many cited in the posts I linked to in the first paragraph.
I’m not trying to evoke (or, for that mater, spark) anything comparable with Selma, Alabama, but I think that when you have judges berating you for the damage that your lack of belief does to your children, you’re talking about more than just a public image problem. The legal protections are there, so atheists don’t face wholesale, legalized discrimination. That’s good, but there are still a hell of a lot of retailers out there.
See the original for links.
P.Z. also weighs in:
There are unconstitutional laws on the books in several states that in principle preclude atheists for running for any office; that is a civil rights issue. We have schools that try to make our kids take a loyalty oath which includes acknowledging a nonexistent god; that is a civil rights issue. We have government support of ridiculous “faith-based” charities that exclude secular institutions; that is a civil rights issue. We have widespread bigotry against atheists that is encouraged by authorities — try living in the rural midwest if you think there aren’t such situations going on all the time.
Again, see the original for links.
Ed Brayton also piles on:
The last part is a quote from Grothe’s column. I can only say that Grothe is abysmally ignorant if he really believes that there is no such thing as atheist-bashing. All he has to do is talk to the plaintiffs in practically any church/state lawsuit filed in the last century. He will find that each of them, almost without exception, received harassing and threatening phone calls, emails, letters and comments. Here’s a recent example that involved not atheists but a Jewish family who was challenging Christian prayers being offered in the schools there.
This goes back a long, long way. The families that filed lawsuits to end the mandatory pledge of allegiance, forced prayer in schools and other forms of Christian hegemony almost invariably received death threats and required police protection. Their homes were vandalized (one had dog feces smeared all over their porch), they were told that if they didn’t leave town “something bad might happen.”
In some cases the harassment has been so bad that the courts have allowed suits to be filed anonymously, as in Doe v Santa Fe (which still didn’t stop the harassment; they simply went after anyone they thought might be involved, including a Baptist family that literally had to get up and leave the church after being pointed out by their own pastor during a sermon). Even a Federal judge, himself a Christian, came in for the same treatment in the Dover trial. To pretend that such harassment does not go on is folly.
You know where to go to find the links.
What is plain from these examples is that there is indeed genuine discrimination and bigotry (as opposed to mere distaste) directed at atheists. And it is not just found in a handful of isolated cases. That said, the civil rights dimension is not the primary front in the battle for the social acceptance of atheists. As I explained in my previous post, the point of the comparison with past civil rights movements is not to compare levels of hardship. It is to emulate the tactics that have led to success in the past.