The Freedom of Thought Report 2015: discrimination and persecution against non-religious people

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    Jan 16, 2016 7:30 PM GMT
    The Freedom of Thought Report is an annual survey on discrimination and persecution against non-religious people in countries around the world....

    Excerpted (though I may add some color or bold for random emphasis) from

    Freedom of Thought 2015: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists, and the Non-religious; Their Human Rights and Legal Status, was created by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

    The International Humanist and Ethical Union is the worldwide democratic body for Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secular, ethical culture, and freethought organizations. Its mission is to represent and support the global Humanist movement, and to build a world in which human rights are respected and all can live a life of dignity.

    United States of America

    Constitution and government

    The United States receives a relatively good rating in this Report, in consequence of the nation’s strong constitutional protections in favour of freedom of thought, religion or belief and freedom of expression, which are usually upheld in practice. There is also a deep-rooted cultural emphasis on individual freedom.

    However, those very freedoms, and openness to challenge, debate and due process — combined with the sometimes also very strong, deeply-rooted Christian conservativism of some Americans — means that secular, Humanist and civil liberties groups find themselves facing a continual battle to preserve the inherent secularism of the constitution from frequently recurring challenges, often involving state authorities or officials, or individuals, citing “religious freedom” in an attempt to bypass separation of church and state, to enforce particular religious beliefs in the public sphere, or in some way “establish” religion. Thanks to founding constitutional principles, these battles are usually won on the side of secularism in the longer term.

    The constitution, “free exercise” and “establishment”

    The US Constitution is often considered to be one of the world’s first secular documents. The secular tradition in US law comes in part from the diverse religious makeup of the original colonies and the enlightenment idea that no one religion should come to be dominant in politics.

    The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference.

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

    The Amendment has two clauses directly relating to the relationship between state and religion. The “Free Exercise Clause”, protects the rights of people to hold whatever religious beliefs he or she wants, and to exercise that belief. This protection has also been extended to the right to non-belief.

    The “Establishment Clause” forbids the establishment of a state church and prevents the government, both state and federal, from favoring any one religious doctrine. This is often called the separation clause, referring to Thomas Jefferson's description of “a wall of separation between church and state”.

    The Constitution also prevents religious requirements for public office with Article 6 stating: “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”.

    Broadly speaking, these clauses combine to create an largely open society in which all people are afforded the same legal rights to practice religion or not; convert from one religion to another, or reconvert altogether; to express beliefs regarding religion; and to participate in all areas of public life.

    “Under God” and “In God we Trust”

    Despite the long history of the secular constitution, the Cold War Era in the 1950s saw increased paranoia towards atheism because of its association with Communism. In 1951 the Catholic group “The Knights of Columbus” successfully lobbied to have the words “Under God” added to the pledge of allegiance. The pledge is said during the opening of sessions of Congress, the beginning of numerous state and local government meetings and at the beginning of a school day. It is also popular during the July 4th festivities.

    Similarly, the United states Motto was established in 1956 as “In God We Trust” and can be found on all paper currency in the US. There have been numerous unsuccessful campaigns since the 1950s, by secular and religious minority groups alike, to secularise both the pledge and the motto. These have included numerous supreme and appeals court cases, the most recent being in April 2014.

    The Don’t Say the Pledge campaign
    by the American Humanist Association has had some success in 2015, for example establishing precedents against the enforced recitation of the pledge by students in school settings.

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    Jan 16, 2016 7:31 PM GMT

    Religious monuments on government land

    The U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from endorsing one religion over the other, but there have been many attempts to establish religion, particularly Christianity, in the form of religious monuments on public property. However, results from a variety of lawsuits have been mixed.

    In April 2014, the American Humanist Association successfully challenged plans to erect a memorial honoring war veterans that included an image of a soldier kneeling to a Christian cross. However, in November 2015, the association lost a similar case challenging a 40-foot Christian cross, known as the Peace Cross, in Bladensburg, Maryland.

    The holiday season in December often results in an uptick of constitutional violations regarding religious displays on public property. Local governments often place stand-alone nativity scenes (also known as creches) on public grounds, which violates the Establishment Clause. However, local governments have found a way around the law by allowing other religious holiday displays along with the nativity scenes, such as menorahs. A number of local humanist organizations have requested permission to display a HumanLight sign or other display representing humanists, atheists, and freethinkers.

    State Laws

    Although the Constitution is secular, there are significant anti-secular issues at the state level. Despite the constitutional prohibition (Article 6) of any “religious test” for public office, there are currently 8 states where the laws directly block those who deny the existence of God or “a supreme being” from holding public office. This can even extend to the banning of atheists from testifying in court. An example of this is the State constitution of Arkansas which explicitly mentions atheists:

    “1: Atheists disqualified from holding office or testifying as witness.
    No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.”

    Similar laws exist in Maryland, Mississippi, Texas, both Carolinas, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

    Numerous federal test cases have declared these laws unconstitutional. But there has been insufficient political will to amend them.

    Education and children’s rights

    The role of religion in American public schools has been a source of heated debate for decades. The Establishment Clause has generally been interpreted as prohibiting the observance or promotion of religion in state-funded schools.

    Despite the clear prohibition against public funding for religious schools, there are some cases where state and federal funding can be used to send children to private religious schools through a voucher program. There is an argument to be made that this constitutes indirect funding of religious schools.

    In 2015, religious and secular groups protested the possible creation of a private school voucher programme under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) under the guise of “portability” of voucher entitlements. The groups protested that “The portability provision undermines Title I’s fundamental purpose of assisting public schools with high concentrations of poverty and high-need students and serves as a stepping-stone to private school vouchers…”

    School prayer has been a major heatedly contested issue. Since the 1960s, schools have been forbidden to compose prayers for students or include prayer as part of official school proceedings. Students are allowed to pray in groups or on their own independent of formal school proceedings as long as it is not disruptive. Other expressions of religion, such as religious clothing, are protected under the free exercise clause of the 1st amendment. Despite a recent decline in support a 2011 poll found that 65% of the Americans support school prayer. Over the decades there have been numerous legal cases, many of which have gone as far as the supreme court.

    Many local School districts are run by a board directly elected by the local population. Whilst this direct involvement can be seen as positive, in some cases, it has led to the school board’s domination by religious ideologues. This has often lead to school boards attempting to introduce creationism and intelligent design curricula such as during the Kitzmiller v. Dover case in 2005. A more recent and complex case can be found in the East Ramapo School District where the Orthodox Jewish dominated board has been accused of favouring Jewish students who attend Private Orthodox schools whilst defunding the places of up to 9,000 public school students.

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    Jan 16, 2016 7:33 PM GMT

    Family, community and society

    Hobby Lobby

    On 25 March 2014, the Supreme Court heard arguments for the cases Sebelius v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v Sebelius. The Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties are both Christian-owned stores that were concerned about the ‘contraceptive mandate’, which would require that businesses that offer health insurance to their employees must also cover all federally-approved contraception methods for them at no additional cost. The store owners believe that four of those contraceptive methods are equivalent to abortion. They argued that the contraceptives would burden their religious exercise and and sought for an exemption. They argued that they were entitled to exemption under the RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) and the administration had granted exemptions to some churches and religious nonprofit organizations, showing that the mandate could not be the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling state interest. The government had argued that for-profit corporations’ owners do not receive such exemptions. However, the Supreme Court eventually ruled in a 5-4 decision that a closely-held company can be exempt from contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

    Social Pressure on the Non-religious

    The US has among the highest religiosity in the western world, though there has been a marked rise in the number of people identifying as non-religious or religiously “unaffiliated” in recent years.

    Despite strong legal and constitutional protections for the religious and secular alike, the U.S. has long been home to a social and political atmosphere in which the non-religious are sometimes made to feel like lesser Americans or as if atheism is “un-American”.

    Opinion polls have regularly suggested that the majority of Americans would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate if they were an atheist. One survey suggested that “No other trait, including being gay or having never held elected office, garnered a larger share of people saying they’d be less likely to support the potential candidate.” Other surveys have shown that 60% of Americans (75% of Evangelicals) have a less favourable view of atheists than most other belief groups.

    It’s worth noting that these surveys actually represent an improvement in the reputation of atheists when compared to similar studies undertaken in previous years.

    In some states more than others, the prevailing social prejudice against atheists and the non-religious reinforces, and is reinforced by, the political support for religious, especially Christian, privilege. While there is legal remedy for clear discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, it can often go unchallenged in situations where it is difficult, or personally disadvantageous or hazardous, to take a stand against authority, for example in prisons, the military, and even some administrative contexts.

    Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

    Atheists in Congress

    Anti-non-religious sentiment has fed into the social idea that to be really American is to be religious, especially Christian, which in turn creates an atmosphere in which elected officials, or candidates seeking office, feel the need to play into that idea. There is a clear right to be an atheist, but going public as such, in some states or in some social or political contexts, might have debilitating consequences for your chances of success in life.

    For example, there are several Congress members who refuse to list their religious affiliation but only one of the 535 members of Congress claim to be non-religious (Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) listed “none” under the category of religious affiliation). One former Congressman, Barney Frank, who had previously suggested he was an atheist, said in his 2015 memoir that, “In fact, I am not an atheist”, and even advised others against using the term.

    Despite the dearth of known non-religious politicians in Congress, the American Humanist Association suggested in 2014 that dozens have in fact stated privately they are non-religious, but are afraid to “come out”.

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    Jan 16, 2016 7:34 PM GMT

    Same-sex marriage

    In June 2015, the Supreme Court established the right of same-sex couples to marry, in a landmark ruling (Obergefell v. Hodges). Implementation of the decision, which effectively legalised same-sex marriage nationwide, has faced opposition from some conservative religious groups. In one widely-reported case, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, an elected official, was briefly sent to prison after refusing to comply with the ruling by issuing same-sex marriage licenses, and she remains under pressure to comply fully with the law by re-issuing licenses which she altered to keep her name off them. Davis refused either to comply with the law, or to stand down, and has been treated as a “religious freedom” hero by conservative Christians, in effect for discriminating against same-sex couples by refusing to comply with the equal marriage ruling.

    Highlighted cases

    There were some mixed signs for secular equality in the justice system in 2015. In February 2015, after a hearing on charges of DUI (driving under the influence), one Michael Baker was required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (“AA”) meetings as a condition of his parole, despite being an atheist and despite officially raising objections to his parole officer and again at a hearing in August, and despite being verbally harassed for his atheism by other attendees at the AA meetings he did attend. At the most recent hearing in August, despite recognising the “spiritual basis” of AA, the judge ordered Baker to attend.

    “The state cannot require an atheist to undergo faith-based treatment, as doing so clearly violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In fact, the Ninth Circuit has twice held that a parolee's right to be free from coerced participation in AA is a matter of ‘uncommonly well-settled case law...’”
    — Monica Miller, senior counsel, Appignani Humanist Legal Center

    Jason Holden, a humanist inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon, was denied the right to form a humanist study group and to identify as a humanist for official purposes. However, in this case, acting on Holden’s behalf, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center reached a favorable settlement with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. “This settlement is a victory for all humanists in the federal prison system, who will no longer be denied the rights that religious individuals are accorded,” commented Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. Under the terms of the enforceable settlement, the Bureau must acknowledge humanism as a worldview in parity with theistic religious beliefs, provide information as required, recognise those who wish to identify as humanist for official assignment purposes, and must permit humanist study groups.