On Tuesday, the city of Madison, Wisconsin announced that it is now against the law to discriminate against atheists, making it the first city in the country to grant explicit legal protection to people who do not believe in a God.
According to Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist blog, last night the Madison city council voted unanimously to add atheists to a list of protected groups in the city’s equal opportunity ordinance, an anti-discrimination law. The move, which inserts the phrase “religion or nonreligion” into the legal code, prevents atheists from being denied equal opportunity in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
“This is important because I believe it is only fair that if we protect religion, in all its varieties, we should also protect non-religion from discrimination,” Anita Weier, an Alderwoman in Madison and sponsor of the ordinance, told local news affiliate Channel 3000.
The ordinance also outlaws discrimination based on a number of other factors such as sex, race, citizenship status, arrest record, sexual orientation, gender identity, or anyone who declines to disclose their social security number, among many others. Reportedly, no one at the council meeting voiced disagreement with the proposal to include atheists.
The new law is part of a growing movement to claim formal protection for atheists, who often face explicit or implicit discrimination for their non-belief. Although the U.S. Constitution expressly prohibits submitting candidates for office to a religious test, people who do not believe in God are currently legally barred from holding office in seven states: North Carolina, Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. These statutes are, of course, unlikely to hold up in court, but atheists also face substantial hurdles at the ballot box, as a 2012 Gallup poll found that Americans are more likely to vote for Mormons, Muslims, or gay people than atheist candidates.
Atheists have scored a few legal wins over the past few years, such as a federal district court in Oregon declaring in 2014 that Secular Humanism is a “religion” for the purposes of legal protection. In addition, last year advocates from across the country successfully pressured an Alaska town into guaranteeing atheists the right to deliver invocations at city council meetings, and several nonbeliever groups continue to push for the inclusion of a Humanist chaplain in the U.S. military.
This post was updated to reflect that while the initial proposal for the legislation wanted to insert the phrase “religion or atheism,” the final legislation that passed yesterday reads “religion and nonreligion,” a broader term that includes atheists but also others who might be excluded from the atheist category.