When he was a kid, one of my best friends joined the Boy Scouts of America. He was a model Scout for the duration of his membership, but that membership was suddenly revoked after about six months—not for misconduct or failure to complete program requirements, but because his Scout Master saw that he identified himself as agnostic on his Myspace.
Such discrimination against non-theists (people who don’t affirm the existence of gods) is surprisingly widespread in the U.S. Many organizations such as the Boy Scouts, who call themselves private even though they benefit from public funds, have discriminatory policies that bar non-theists from membership. According to former Eagle Scout Steve Cozza, “when they want to discriminate, they act as a private organization; when they want money or the use of publicly-funded buildings, venues, or property, they act as a public organization.” Worse than this is our theistic oath of office requirement for federal officials. Congressional representatives, military officers, and other federal employees are often forced to take an oath of office ending with the phrase “so help me God,” and this can prevent well-qualified candidates from serving–just for sticking to their principles. Yet perhaps the worst example of discrimination against nonbelievers is theism as qualification for holding public office being written into numerous state constitutions. The constitutions of South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Maryland, and other states contain clauses that exclude people who do not acknowledge the existence of God or a Supreme Being (phraseology varies) from holding office. In spite of the Supreme Court’s 1961 ruling that such clauses violate the federal Constitution, they are still used to deny those who are not monotheists (which includes those with polytheistic and atheistic religions, like paganism and Buddhism, respectively) the right to serve in state governments.
A dismaying number of Americans are unaware of this problem or just don’t care enough to do something about it, although there are many simple ways to help make it clear that such discriminative policies are both inconsistent with the Constitution and unacceptable to the American public and to help bring them to an end, such as:
- Writing letters or emailing state and federal representatives about our concerns regarding such discrimination and calling on them to take legislative measures to prevent it and repeal iniquitous clauses.
- Organizing rallies or petitions in support of equal opportunities for non-theists.
- Joining organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union, or donating to such organizations, or simply taking action online by sending pre-fabricated emails to leaders and lawmakers through their websites.
- Forming new organizations that promote tolerance and equity among theists and non-theists alike.
- Sharing concerns about discriminatory policies with groups like the Boy Scouts, petitioning them to admit prospective members regardless of religion or lack thereof, or legally challenging them if rejected for beliefs or lack thereof.
If we all take decisive action, we can bring about the end of discrimination against nonbelievers and fulfillment of promises of U.S. Constitution, made in the First and Fourteenth Amendments. According to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This implies the freedom to choose any religion or no religion. According to the Fourteenth Amendment, “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States… nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction equal protection of the laws.” This implies equal opportunities for all, theists and non-theists alike. Clearly, these promises have yet to be fulfilled. However, this can change–and it will, if the historical trend of human progress continues. But such progress is never achieved without effort.
Thus, I urge you all to join me and groups like the FFRF and ACLU in taking action to help end discrimination against non-theists. Hopefully, our collective actions will lead to the dawn of an era where people like my old friend, the would-be Boy Scout, will not have to fear persecution for not sharing the beliefs of the majority.