Atheism Is Indeed a Civil Rights Issue: Struggling for Equality before the Law

Article excerpt

In "Atheism Is Not a Civil Rights Issue," DJ Grothe and Austin Dacey deny that atheism is a civil rights issue. They reject the idea that nonbelievers should focus on electing other nonbelievers to political office. I disagree on both counts.


One test of whether a minority group's struggle for equality is a civil rights issue is whether majority attitudes toward that minority reflect unreasonable prejudice or a desire to deny full legal rights to its members. By this standard, atheists' efforts to achieve legal and social equality indeed constitute a civil rights movement. Consider that, in 1958, a Gallup poll revealed that 53 percent of American citizens would vote against a Black candidate for president on grounds of race alone. In a 1999 Gallup poll, that figure had declined to 4 percent. (1) That same 1999 Gallup poll revealed that a larger percentage of American citizens, 49 percent, would vote against an atheist on grounds of atheism alone than would vote against someone for any other reason. (2) Even though this is the lowest comparative percentage of people who said they would vote against someone just for being a nonbeliever, in absolute numbers, it is still a higher percentage than is applicable to any other historically disfavored group.

Given current attitudes, new laws that overtly discriminate against atheists would pass easily, and any such existing laws would eagerly be enforced--save only for the United States Supreme Court, which has held consistently since 1947 that no branch of government can favor believers over nonbelievers. (3) Enlightened as this position may be, it has never enjoyed majority support. Quite to the contrary, each time the Supreme Court, indeed any court, has struck down government preference for religion over nonbelief, an overwhelming majority of the public has opposed the decision in question.

Ever since the famous Supreme Court rulings of 1962 and 1963 that ended teacher-led prayer and Bible readings in public schools, in poll after poll Americans have favored returning government sponsored prayer to public schools by a minimum margin of 69 percent to 27 percent. (4) In many surveys, the percentage favoring restoration of school prayer exceeds 75 percent. (5)

In other words, an overwhelming majority of Americans rejects the offer of fairness that atheists and secular humanists have always proposed. We don't want government to favor us over others; we just want government to be neutral, so that both believers and nonbelievers will be equal before the law. We want government to stay out of the God controversy, so that the official structure of society equally embraces both believers and nonbelievers. We want government to be silent on the question of God's existence and on matters of worship. Even a moderate conservative like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has endorsed this position, asserting that the First Amendment prohibits all branches of government from treating people differently based upon "the God or gods they worship or don't worship." (6)

In contrast, most Americans yearn for government to take sides in the dispute over whether God exists. And so, we atheists and humanists find ourselves dependent on a constitutional mandate of equality before the law, the immediate survival of which depends upon a dangerously narrow margin of just two votes on the Supreme Court. A shift of these two votes would establish a five-vote majority on the Court sufficient to abolish the present requirement of government neutrality between religion and nonbelief. So far, President Bush has succeeded in appointing judges to the lower federal courts who openly favor a Christian theological basis for our legal system. These judges, unfortunately reflecting attitudes held by most Americans, maintain that the Supreme Court has been wrong in its unbroken line of decisions that require government to treat belief and nonbelief equally. …