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4 Reasons Atheists Have to Fight for Their Rights

In the U.S., atheists have laws protecting them. But laws aren't always obeyed, or enforced -- and fighting for legal rights can have dire consequences.

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And I have yet another piece of shocking news for you. I know, the terrible news just keeps on coming:

Sometimes laws aren't enforced.

To give just one appalling example: It is -- or it should be -- illegal to deny custody to atheist parents, purely and explicitly on the basis of their atheism. And yet this happens, again and again and again. It has happened in states including Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas. According to Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy, "In 2001, for instance, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld an order giving a mother custody partly because she took the child to church more often than the father did, thus providing a better 'future religious example.' In 2000, it ordered a father to take the child to church each week, as a [lower] Mississippi court ordered... reasoning that 'it is certainly to the best interests of [the child] to receive regular and systematic spiritual training.'"

Try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to parents, explicitly and specifically, because they were Jewish. Because they were Mormon. Because they were Baptist. And now, try to imagine a judge in this country denying or limiting custody to a parent, explicitly and specifically because she's an atheist. You don't have to imagine it. This is real. This happens.

It is illegal. Or it should be. But custody laws vary greatly from state to state -- and family court is something of a special case, where judges have far more leeway than they do in other courts. So this is a very, very difficult legal battle to fight. The laws against it exist -- but they are very difficult to enforce.

And finally, I have one last piece of earth-shattering news that will almost certainly shake your worldview to its foundations:

Not all bigotry is illegal.

The fact that atheists are the least-trusted group in America? Totally screwed-up -- and totally legal. The fact that atheists are the minority group Americans least want their children to marry? Totally screwed-up -- and totally legal. The fact that only 54 percent of Americans think atheists could share their vision of society? Totally screwed-up -- and totally legal. The fact that only 54 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president -- a lower number than any other group? Totally screwed-up -- and totally legal. People have the legal right to not vote for an atheist... just like they have the legal right to not vote for a woman, or an African American, or a Muslim, or a Jew. It's still discrimination. It's still screwed-up.

And it's still worth fighting.

Plus, of course, all of this is just in the United States, where we do have a Constitution that ostensibly gives us the legal right to not be religious. In much of the world, the situation for atheists is far worse. In much of the world, it is literally against the law to be an atheist, and to say so, and to say anything critical of religion. To give just one example of many: In Indonesia, atheist Alexander Aan was beaten by a mob, arrested, convicted, and sentenced to over two years in prison -- for stating his atheism on Facebook. (There is currently a petition to the White House, asking President Obama to speak out about the Alexander Aan case and call on the Indonesian government to correct this gross violation of human rights.)

Is anti-atheist bigotry as bad as homophobia or racism, misogyny or transphobia? No. Almost certainly not. Not in the U.S., anyway. It's worse in some ways -- we consistently show up in polls as the least trusted group in America, and the least likely to be voted for -- but atheists don't seem to be subject to the same level of physical violence as gay or trans people, or the same level of economic oppression as women or people of color.

 
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