Justice

Atheists Score Major Win In Federal Court

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A federal district court in Oregon has declared Secular Humanism a religion, paving the way for the non-theistic community to obtain the same legal rights as groups such as Christianity.

On Thursday, October 30, Senior District Judge Ancer Haggerty issued a ruling on American Humanist Association v. United States, a case that was brought by the American Humanist Association (AHA) and Jason Holden, a federal prisoner. Holden pushed for the lawsuit because he wanted Humanism — which the AHA defines as “an ethical and life-affirming philosophy free of belief in any gods and other supernatural forces” — recognized as a religion so that his prison would allow for the creation of a Humanist study group. Haggerty sided with the plaintiffs in his decision, citing existing legal precedent and arguing that denying Humanists the same rights as groups such as Christianity would be highly suspect under the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which declares that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

“The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes,” the ruling read.

The decision highlights the unusual position of the Humanist community, which has tried for years to obtain the same legal rights as more traditional religious groups while simultaneously rebuking the existence of a god or gods. But while some Humanists may chafe at being called a “religion,” others feel that the larger pursuit of equal rights trumps legal classifications.

“I really don’t care if Humanism is called a religion or not,” Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, told ThinkProgress. “But if you’re going to give special rights to religions, then you have to give them to Humanism as well, and I think that’s what this case was about.”

Humanism has grown — at least in terms of organization — rapidly over the past few years, with members establishing official Humanist chaplaincies at Harvard University, American University, Columbia University, and Rutgers University. Atheists — one of the many titles for a diversity of nonreligious Americans, which includes Humanists — have also successfully fought for the right to offer invocations at government meetings: Kelly McCauley, a member of the North Alabama Freethought Association, opened a City Council meeting in Huntsville, Alabama in September with an invocation that did not mention God but extolled the virtues of “Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Moderation.”

“Nonreligious people are just one of the large groups in American society today,” Epstein said. “Increasingly, we need to be recognized not just for our non-belief, but also as a community, and this decision affirms that.”

Despite these successes, the movement to obtain legal rights for Humanists has also encountered stiff resistance. Atheists and Humanists are disproportionately underrepresented in Congress, for instance, and the American Humanist Association is currently in a lengthy battle with the U.S. military to establish formal Humanist chaplains for nonreligious soldiers. In June, the U.S. Navy rejected the application of Jason Heap for a commission as a chaplain.

UPDATE

This post has been updated to describe the judge’s decision, which was a rejection of a motion to dismiss, with greater precision.

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