Atheists are a Protected Class! But a religion?


The First Amendment of the Constitution is an interesting paragraph. It begins with “Congress shall make no law…”

When teaching Communication Ethics, my classes discuss a lot of examples of what is and is not a violation of the Amendment. We speak about what restriction on free speech a state university or college can make and what restrictions private college can make.

The University of Missouri, for example, has a “Speaker’s Circle,” a centrally located cement “stump” that is open for anyone to say anything about everything. Of course there are some restrictions for this and other true public venues. 

If the speech creates and “clear and present danger;” if it consists of “fighting words” that may create immediate violence; or, if the language can be found in a court of law to be slander or libel.  There are also limits concerning obscenity, or conflict with government interests.

My class talks about University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who made some very public comments concerning the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Churchill was accused saying that the United States deserved to be attacked because how our government treats Muslims.

You may disagree with what he allegedly said but he had every right to say it. Churchill’s tenure at the university could not be ended because CU is a state owned university. However, a private college in Wisconsin, which had contracted Churchill to speak, could and did cancel the contract.

A similar situation was recently reported by the Detroit Free Press.

Richard Dawkins, founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and a defender of atheism and skepticism, was scheduled to speak at a fundraiser in Michigan at a private country club. The Free Press reported that the fundraiser was cancelled by the country club when they “discovered” that “Dawkins is an atheist after watching him on ‘The O’Reilly Factor’ on the Fox News channel…”

Dawkins, justifiably, was quite angered by this action and the organization moved the conference and Dawkins did speak that evening after all.

The controversy began with an interview Dawkins has a week earlier on Bill O’Reilly’s O’Reilly Factor. The reason for Dawkins’ appearance was two-fold. First to introduce Dawkins’ new book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True; second was to O’Reilly’s wanting to reopen the conversation of science versus creationism.

In his introduction, O’Reilly mentioned that the audience for Dawkins’ book included children and that Dawkins was pushing his atheist agenda. Dawkins countered that the book was about science.

I have not had the pleasure of reading The Magic of Reality yet, but from reading other Dawkins’ books, I can say that I will be leaning closer to Dawkins’ side of the discussion.

Back to the original topic.

Dawkins claims that the cancellation of his presentation by the private country club was due to the comments made by O’Reilly and that none of the decision makers read his book. From my own experience with people jumping to conclusions, this can be true.

The Free Press also quoted Dawkins as saying that the country club’s actions were a violation of “the spirit of the Civil Rights Act,” and is evidence of the continued discrimination against atheists.

From anecdotal personal experience as well as comments made by many of my atheist friends, atheist are frequently targeted by co-workers and supervisors, by acquaintances’ and others for their (our) position concerning religion.

I have also been discriminated against because I am a Jew by heritage and tradition. I know discrimination based on religious beliefs.

Most atheists do not consider atheism a religion, no matter how we define the term. Yet it appears that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, may include atheism as a protected class.

In their definition of “religion,” the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says:

For purposes of Title VII, religion includes not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others. An employee’s belief or practice can be “religious” under Title VII even if the employee is affiliated with a religious group that does not espouse or recognize that individual’s belief or practice, or if few – or no – other people adhere to it. Title VII’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.

Religious beliefs include theistic beliefs [i.e. those that include a belief in God] as well as non-theistic “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” Although courts generally resolve doubts about particular beliefs in favor of finding that they are religious, beliefs are not protected merely because they are strongly held. Rather, religion typically concerns “ultimate ideas” about “life, purpose, and death.” Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not “religious” beliefs protected by Title VII. (Emphasis added)

Using this explanation, atheism may very well be a protected class and any discrimination because of our non-theistic position (can I say “belief?”) is very real  violation of that law.

Should atheists accept the definition provided by the Civil Rights Act? I will argue “yes” for a single reason. We meet the definitions.

Atheists I know and have had to pleasure to write to do concern their thoughts about life and death, as we do the purpose of life. The decision not to believe in a mystical omniscient being which controls the universe is ours, as the choice to believe in God and the biblical stories are to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Atheists do think about “ultimate ideas” concerning the beginning of time and space, the formation of the universe as we are aware of it and the evolution of life as we know it.

We are very interested in knowing who or what else is “out there” and seek confirmation of any reasonable explanation provided.

If looking for the formula that answers ultimate question of “life the universe and everything,” then I do not know what does.

From a legal stand, I believe atheists are doing themselves, ourselves, an injustice by deciding not to include ourselves in the broader category of “religions as a protected class.”

From a practical standpoint – well I can just hear the arguments from the religious communities…

David Rosman’s new book, A Christian Nation? An examination of Christian nation theories and proofs, is due for release on November 15, 2011. You can pre-order your copy today with a 20% discount by going to Books.InkandVoice.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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2 Responses to Atheists are a Protected Class! But a religion?

  1. Fil Salustri says:

    I can see your argument that atheism meets the EEOC definition, but I think I see a problem. Religion deals with spirituality. Of course, this depends on how you define ‘religion,’ but I think the connection between religion and spirituality is not especially controversial. If this connection is valid, then what of non-spiritual atheists (like me)? That is, a description of spirituality as described in, say, wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirituality) is something I have no belief in. It would seem that only spiritual atheists conform to the notion of religion as defined by EEOC.

    What do you think?

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