Is Atheism a Protected Religion?


There are a couple of questions that have bothered me over the last few decades and I would like to share my thoughts.

  1. Why would people not vote for an atheist running for city, county, state or federal office?
  2. Should one be denied his or her job because he or she is an atheist?

The current viral video was made by “Grappling Ignorance,” who was supposedly fired from his job as a teacher because he is an atheist. The lack of evidence is deafening.

Please watch it before you continue http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8ivrcVSdaM&feature=player_embedded

The first time I really heard about religious discrimination in terms of employment was in the early 1970s [yes, last century] as it concerned a Catholic high school refusing to hire a person of the Jewish faith to teach religious classes. The person was properly qualified to teach religion, with the proper degrees and experience. Yet the school said “no.”

The court agreed with the Church. Why? Let’s go back to the beginning.

During his short presidency, John Kennedy worked to pass a new law that would guaranty expanded rights for all minorities, including women, people of all religions and people of all ethnic groups. Upon his assassination in 1963, Lyndon Johnson took the reins and drove the bill through Congress (as only LBJ could do) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

Singing of the Civil rights act of 1964

Though initially the focus was on Americans of African origin, the act also makes it is unlawful if any form of discrimination is based on color, religion, sex, or national origin.  In his speech to Congress on March 15, 1965, President Johnson said,

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause…

This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: “All men are created equal,” “government by consent of the governed,” “give me liberty or give me death.” Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives.

Though his speech lent itself to the “Negro problem,” the bill would change the American landscape forever, but not without some exceptions to the rules.

One of those exceptions fall to any religious organization, especially the educational arm of that organization, in whom they hire. The Catholic American University Office of General Council explains.

Title VII grants religious educational institutions substantial leeway in granting a hiring preference on the basis of religion if the religious educational institution is, in whole or in substantial part, owned, supported, controlled or managed by a particular religious corporation, association, or society, or if the curriculum is directed toward the propagation of a particular religion. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 (e)(2)

One of the more recent challenges to this “broad” exception to the law came in 2008; Linda LaBoon v. the Lancaster (PA) Jewish Community Center Association (LJCC). LaBoon, an evangelical Christian, worked for the LJCC for four years before her termination in 2002.

According to the affidavit judgment from United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the LJCC claimed LaBoon’s firing was based on the financial condition of the organization. LaBoon claimed that there was a pattern of firings based on ability, race, and now religion.

A Magistrate Judge made the summary judgment in this case at the request of the District court. In 2004, and again in 2005, the Magistrate determined “that the LJCC was a ‘religious organization,  exempted from compliance with the  religious discrimination provisions of Title VII by Section 702 of  the Civil Rights Act of 1964.’” The decision was appealed to the Court of Appeals.

This is a long and complicated case that included the standing of the parties involved, jurisdiction and if the appeal was filed within the guides of the law. Allow me to stick to the subject at hand.

There was no question as to whether the LJCC is a religious organization. Its mission statement makes that clear; that its purpose was “to enhance and promote Jewish life, identity, and continuity.”The LJCC is center of the Jewish community in Lancaster.

LaBoon argued that the LJCC was not religious enough to qualify for Section 702 protection. Based on the evidence, the court rejected this claim. The court also rejected her claim of “retaliation” for her accusations that two other employees were dismissed for reasons contrary to the title.

The case was appealed and based on all of the evidence presented the Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court and summary judgment that LaBoon’s termination was justified and that the LJCC was a religious organization, thus exempt from the Civil Rights Act and Section 702. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

But the case of “Grappling Ignorance” may be different and because we do not have all the information, may or may not be a violation of Section 702.

First, because atheists do not consider their nontheistic position a “belief” or “religion,” would an atheist fall outside of this exception? I believe this is a very valid question and one the courts need to explore.

Second, is the school public or private? If private, is it affiliated with a religious sect? This is an important point. If this is a public school system, there is no doubt in my mind that Grappling may have been wronged and should seek action.

Third, is this a publicity stunt to help Grappling Ignorance drive people to his YouTube site? In other words, is this a clever hoax in the name of advertising?

Regardless of the circumstance, I believe the first question is the most important. If atheists, and I pride myself to be among this loosely knit organization of slow moving fun seekers, do not considered themselves a “religion,” what legal standing do they have even if the entity is a public institution?

Unfortunately, I do not know the answer. Do you?

David Rosman is an award winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in Communications, Ethics, Business and Politics. You can read more of David’s commentaries at ColumbiaMissourian.com andNew York Journal of Books.com

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About David Rosman

David Rosman is an award winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in Communications, Ethics, Business and Politics. You can read more of David’s commentaries at ColumbiaMissourian.com, InkandVoice.com and NYJournalofBooks.com.
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One Response to Is Atheism a Protected Religion?

  1. Very old thread, but the question is still valid.

    “If atheists, and I pride myself to be among this loosely knit organization of slow moving fun seekers, do not considered themselves a “religion,” what legal standing do they have even if the entity is a public institution?”

    “Discrimination on the basis of religion” covers a lot of things. Specifically, it includes both discrimination against people who hold religious belief X, AND discrimination against people who do not hold religious belief X. Furthermore, belief X does not have to be a religion all by itself; it can be a tenet of a religion. A Christian who believes in, say, the holy trinity would be discriminating on the basis of religion if they fired another Christian for NOT believing in the holy trinity.

    So believers are discriminating on the basis of religion if they fire someone for being an atheist; likewise, atheists would be discriminating on the basis of religion if they fire someone for being a theist, even if that person doesn’t follow a particular religion.

    As you go on to point out, that isn’t the only consideration in an employment dispute, but atheists are protected same as anyone else.

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