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Atheist discrimination in the United States

This is a cross-post from Futile Democracy

When Thomas Jefferson was establishing the University of Virginia, he fought hard to ensure that no religious books were included in its library. According to Professor Leonard Levy of Southern Oregon State University:

“No part of the regular school day was set aside for religious worship….Jefferson did not permit the room belonging to the university to be used for religious purposes.”

- Similarly, according to Dr. Daryl Cornett of Mid-America Theological Seminary:

“Jefferson also founded the first intentionally secularized university in America. His vision for the University of Virginia was for education finally free from traditional Christian dogma. He had a disdain for the influence that institutional Christianity had on education. At the University of Virginia there was no Christian curriculum and the school had no chaplain.”

- It is with this in mind, that one must note the anti-secular, anti-American treatment by which Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was subjected to when he objected to Christian prayer at graduation. He was threatened, thrown out of his own home by his parents, and his own teacher told a news outlet that he wasn’t respecting the ‘majority’ of students, and felt the need to demean him by saying he’d not contributed much to class. Essentially, the constitution doesn’t matter, if the majority of students are Christian. The very reason schools get away with promoting Christianity in an obvious abuse of the constitution, is because speaking out leads to the hideous treatment that Fowler faced; public abuse, and the loss of his family. On the night of the graduation at Bastrop High, students gleefully prayed anyway, as if abusing a kid standing up for the constitution of the United States, was some sort of great victory. The video of their sickening joy can be viewed here. I wonder how they would have reacted, had the speaker pulled out a prayer mat to lead an Islamic prayer. Or a massive banner above the stage with “There is no God. Jesus didn’t die for your sins” written across it. I’m almost certain it’d make national news, with parents and students registering their disgust and claiming a war on Christianity. And yet, for consistency’s sake, If they don’t support this, they’re simply advocating a public institution recognise an inherent privilege of one faith. Unjustifiable and completely un-American.

A graduation is not a Christian ceremony any more than it is a Poseidon ceremony. It is a secular event. There is no excuse for imposing Christian ritual upon it.

Those kids are not born with discriminatory attitudes. It is enshrined through years of being taught that their faith, is true and that those who question or criticise, are agents of the devil. This is ideology, taught as truth and it is the foundation of discrimination. The poison grows more potent and the sense of religious privilege those kids are imbued with, necessarily transfers from public school, to public office.

Three weeks ago, Uganda enacted its anti-gay law entirely motivated by religion (the exact same grotesque reasons for Governor Bryant signing off on Mississippi’s anti-gay bill, though I’m guessing Bryant is still perfectly happy to have part of his pay packet funded by the LGBT community in his state). This week, Saudi Arabia – home to 18 of the 19 suicide bombers from September 11th – declared all atheists to be terrorists. In fact, Atheists face death execution in thirteen countries across the World – all Islamic. The challenges to religious supremacy and privilege almost always result in oppressive outbursts. A sense of supremacy and privilege – whether based on religion, sexuality, gender, or ethnicity – is a learned behaviour, and completely illegitimate. Indeed, there is no such thing as a ‘Christian country’ or a ‘Muslim country’, only a country whose leaders violently impose a single ideology and privilege, upon a diverse group of curious, and critical human beings. They are exclusive barriers, they are not defining features of an entire population.

The exclusive religious barriers that necessarily leads to discrimination, including atheist discrimination isn’t unique to the Theocratic world. Indeed, as seen with the treatment of Damon Fowler, the US have a recent history of abandoning secularism, for the sake of atheist discrimination. Whilst atheist discrimination does not reach the same horrific heights of racial discrimination, nor homophobic discrimination, it is still prevalent and still causes a lot of difficulty and harm for those not professing deep religious sentiment in the US. Often non-believers will not speak out, through fear that questioning Christian privilege, leads to social exclusion, and family trouble. This is not to be taken lightly.

One has to wonder how Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would have reacted – having worked so hard to ensure a secular birth for the new nation – had they been around to hear President Bush Sr allegedly say:

“No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”

- Apparently the atheists (of which there would have been a few) sent to the Persian Gulf to put their lives on the line and fight for a President whose own son had dodged the draft years earlier, can not be regarded as citizens, or patriotic. Such is the absurd and insulting nature of the mix of religion and state. No single belief system has a fundamental right to claim the privilege of the standard by which everyone else is measured. A country belongs to those who live in it, regardless of sexuality, gender, belief, or ethnicity. It does not belong to a single religion or ideology.

When Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell declared that he does not believe in a God, the Christian Right of North Carolina took great offence. H.K. Edgerton, a board member for the Southern Legal Resource Center – an organisation that apparently stands to protect the rights of all, threatened to file a law suit against Bothwell, claiming he is unfit to serve, and that his appointment violates North Carolina’s anti-Atheist Constitutional provision. Indeed, the provision in the constitution of North Carolina reads:

“No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.”

- This provision is overruled by Paragraph 3, of Article VI of the Constitution which insists that no religious test shall be required for public office. And so whilst barring an Atheist from public office would certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Federal Constitution; it didn’t stop the Christian Right from trying to impose their beliefs only, which often leads to long battles for an Atheist to serve publicly. For example, Herb Silverman ran for the post of Governor of South Carolina in 1992, but was discarded from the race for refusing to swear an oath to God. A whole five years later, the courts ruled in his favour.

In 2001, Carletta Sims – the Tennessee director of American Atheists Inc – worked for Associates Commerce Solutions. Two of her colleagues discovered she was atheist, and requested to be moved away from her desk. After the company obliged, the two colleagues left a sketched picture of Jesus stuck to Sims’ computer. Sims complained of the incident, and was fired for disruption. So, when the Christians complained they were moved desk. When the atheist complained, she was fired. She sued ACS and Citigroup for discrimination, and eventually settled for an undisclosed sum. The judge said:

“The court has reconsidered the facts and does believe that an inference of discriminatory intent could be drawn from the facts now before it.”

In 1991, Professor William Zelner was the victim of discrimination after a student wrote to her local newspaper, and said:

“I don’t take Dr. Zellner’s classes because he is an atheist.”

- What followed, were threatening phone calls to Zellner’s home, his car was keyed on an almost nightly basis, a fellow lecturer wrote that he was in league with Satan, a local church group created buttons for people to wear reading:

“I am praying for Dr. Zellner.”

- His two children – aged 6 and 9 – were shunned, and beaten up. Zellner said:

“He [his son] couldn’t understand why they wanted to hurt him. Explaining bigotry to children is difficult.”

- This is what happens when you teach a single ideology – with its moral anchor somewhere in 1st century Palestine – as truth to children, excluding those who don’t fit its narrow confines. These children are not ‘Christian’ children. They are impressionable minds that absorb the prejudices of parents. It is abuse. The Boy Scouts of America, which exists through a Congressional Charter, currently does not allow Atheists to be a part of it and abuses the naivety and curiosity of children through its institutional Christian dogma. It states:

“The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, ‘On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.’ The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.”

- This dangerously theocratic passage doesn’t go on to provide a reason as to why a belief in a ‘ruling and leading power’ and ‘grateful acknowledgement of his favours and blessings’ are required for good citizenship. The implication being that non-religious folk, are not good citizens. There is of course no analysis to back up this implication, just words, by Christians, who consider themselves the best kind of citizenship. Such is the nature of unjustifiable discrimination, and it is this that leads to the hideous bullying by fellow students, of those who don’t share the exact beliefs of the parents and teachers. It is institutional discrimination aimed at dehumanising those who don’t fit a specific set of criteria set by those privileged few in a position of power, and according to their beliefs only. It is also vastly anti-American, and anti-secular and it is this that eventually leads to situations like that at Bastrop High; where anti-secular bullying and discrimination was so loudly celebrated as a victory.

A recent study found that those surveyed favoured medical treatment for Christians, over atheists. Most placing ‘atheist’ down the list of priorities for a Kidney transplant, simply for professing a lack of belief in a God.

Similarly, according to a Gallup poll from 2007, 48% of those surveyed would not vote for an Atheist running for President.

According to a a poll by the University of Minnesota, parents would not be happy for their child to marry an atheist. A parent would look at me as unworthy of marrying their daughter, simply because I don’t believe the Bible to be the ultimate truth.

State judges for some odd reason, give lectures on how to be good parents, through religious teaching. When challenged on the constitutionality of that lecture, they then try to defend it in the most ridiculous way, as was the case with Anita McLemore v. Carl McLemore. Originally, the chancellor had insisted that both parents should take their children to church on Sunday. This was challenged, and so this bizarre response was penned:

“Anita misinterprets the court’s order. She was not ordered to attend church. The court’s order pertained only to the children, stating that “[b]oth parties shall assume responsibility for the attendance of the children in church each Sunday while in their respective custody.” (emphasis added). Anita asserts that this court order violates the First Amendment establishment and free exercise clauses of the U.S. Constitution as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, arguing that the court order constitutes government establishment of the Christian religion. She alleges that the word “church” used in conjunction with a specific day, Sunday, implicates a particular religion, Christianity. THE AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (1981) defines “church” as “place of worship, a congregation”. It is not a foregone conclusion that such could only refer to a particular religion, sect, or denomination. The chancellor did not specify a particular faith. There was no discrimination or preference shown. The chancellor’s order that the children attend church inherently provided for choice. One need only glance through the yellow pages for the vicinity in which Anita and Carl live to appreciate the diverse meaning of the word “church”. This is simply a succinct term employed by the chancellor to describe a benefit that he determined to be in the best interest of the children.”

Anita asserts that the court order violates her constitutional right not to practice organized religion. While the order for the children to attend “church” might somehow inhibit her ability to be completely free from any effect that “church” might have on her, the order was reasonably based upon serving the best interests of the children. The chancellor, familiar with the churches in the community, was doubtless aware of the myriad of programs offered for enrichment of children’s lives. The range is great. Churches are traditionally places of calm and concern. At virtually no expense to parents, churches offer children the opportunity for interaction with groups of other children as well as adults, in an environment conducive to character-building

- They have answered the criticism, with the reason they were criticised in the first place, and added a ridiculous clause; that by “church” and “on Sunday” they didn’t actually mean specifically Christianity. Does anyone buy that? And even if they genuinely had Taoism or Buddhism in mind as well as Christianity when suggesting “church” on “Sunday”, it is irrelevant. The court has ordered someone to force their child to receive a religious education every Sunday. Christians have decided they know what’s best for children. And whether Christians believe this to be true or not, the courts should not be endorsing – let alone forcing – any religious practice or teaching.

In 2006, Judge James Punch of Orleans County stripped Rachel Bevilacqua of custody of her son, because of her involvement in the ‘Church of Subgenius’; a parody religion. The Judge called her a “pervert” and “mentally ill”. After the case, she finally regained custody in 2007 (after spending $140,000 in legal costs; the cost of overturning the discriminatory attitudes of Christian supremacist Judges), but was told by Judge Adams that she must keep all ‘Subgenius’ literature away from where her child might see and become corrupted by it. Obviously, the child is allowed to see and become corrupted by Christian literature, that leads to homophobia, and bullying those who object to schools promoting Christian prayer at graduation.

In 2012, the San Antonio Independent School District firewall provider, Fortinet blocked school access to atheist websites, categorising them as ‘occult’, whilst allowing access to Christian and creationist websites. It took a threat of court action on the basis of 1st Amendment discrimination, for the District’s Chief Information Officer provider to back down.

According to “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” conducted by WIN-Gallup International, 5% of the US population now identify as Atheist. There are no Atheists in the US Senate. By contrast, Lutherans account for 4.6% of the population, and are represented by 5% of the Senate. Episcopalians make up 1.8% of the population, and enjoy 4% representation in the Senate. Most astonishingly, Presbyterians make up just 2.8% of the population, whilst enjoying 13% of the US Senate. The Senate is dominated by religion.

One must conclude that there is no ‘war on Christianity’ but a war on Christian supremacy. The courts offer preferential treatment to the religious, public schools constantly preach Christianity. For years, religious privilege and supremacy ensured vital stem cell research was withheld. The US political system is loaded with Christian supremacists. It is all but impossible for an Atheist to become President. An ongoing battle since the dawn of the enlightenment – the cause of Jefferson and Madison – to slowly roll back the illegitimate power and privilege of religion over the lives of others and the misery it inflicts on those that don’t adhere to its dictates; this is secular goal the US was founded upon and it is a war that must be won.