Should This City’s Equal Rights Manifesto Be Amended? February 15, 2011

Should This City’s Equal Rights Manifesto Be Amended?

Robert is a commissioner on a certain Minnesota city council’s “Human Rights and Diversity” committee. He wrote to me about a city “manifesto” that he feels needs a bit of tweaking:

[The manifesto] upholds “the rights of every individual… to freedom, dignity, and security regardless of religious affiliation…”

I am attempting to amend this manifesto to include the words “or secular” between religious and affiliation.

The city attorney and other members of the commission are opposed to this proposal because they claim that the non-religious are included in “religious affiliation,” which I deny.

They are also uncomfortable with the word “secular” as if it had some sinister meaning.

At first glance, I sided against Robert. I think the inclusion of non-religious people in that phrasing is implied.

But then again, there are plenty of laws against discrimination… which have had to be amended later to specifically include discrimination against GLBT people. Is this any different?

Similarly, the First Amendment is clear about how we all have “freedom of religion” but we’ve had to constantly battle about how that phrasing includes the freedom to have no religion.

So what should Robert do? Should he pursue the change in phrasing or just let this drop?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Sarah

    The thing is, there are all sorts of “secular affiliations” that are not and should not be protected classes (Freemasons, racist groups, Girl Scouts, etc.) Just let it go.

  • Steve

    Any rational person would think that “religious affiliation” also includes the lack thereof, but with the frightening amount of Christian whackjobs in the US, you simply can’t count on that.

  • Why not “or non-religious” instead of “or secular”?

  • Simon

    Absolutely he should change it if he’s in a position to do so. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

  • cat

    Let’s try the pharse with a less loaded social category “the rights of every individual… to freedom, dignity, and security regardless of [boat ownership]..” Yep, is sure seems like non-boat owners would be included. The plain language reading should suffice. I really do not see a need to challenge unless a case occurs where judicial interpretations problematize it.

    Though I think that, if you wanted to amend the language to include non-theists more explicitly, the best way would just be to simply ad the phrase “or lack thereof” to the end.

  • Erp

    The wording should probably be “regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof”

  • Peterson, C.

    I would say that the inclusion of secular individuals is implied, but I’d have to agree that implied isn’t enough in this day and age. As you say, there’s the whole “freedom of religion doesn’t include freedom from religion” argument.

    There’s also fun things like Justice Scalia arguing that the Civil Rights Amendment applies only to minorities, and not to women or the LGBT community.

    It may be that leaving out any reference to secular individuals would never be an issue, but it certainly can’t hurt to be as specific as possible. And really, if it is implied and everyone accepts it as implied, then adding a couple words to turn an implication into something solid shouldn’t be an issue. Right?

  • Mr Z

    The math is simple on this one. The fact that freedom of religion has to be specified when it should be implicit in all governing laws is proof that if a right is not specified, it will be denied, even in the land of the free.

    Additionally, if it is implied in the current wording then there is no harm in adding the two words and great good by ENSURING there is no confusion about the matter. The desire to leave it ambiguous is indicative of the intentions of those who want it to remain vague.

    This is not about saving ink, or being PC. To fight to leave it ambiguous can have only one intent: allow later citizens to abuse that ambiguity. Any argument against adding the words is an argument for bigotry and religious zealotry.

    Disliking soup is not a choice of soup affiliation. Freedom to select the soup affiliation of your choosing is not implicitly also freedom to choose no soup as that would be abstaining from the choosing process, or restated: you haven’t chosen a soup yet but you are free to choose any soup you like when you’re ready for it.

    Further, having a choice of soups to go with your meal does you no good if you don’t like soup. If only customers who choose soup get a free side to go with it, you very well are being discriminated against because you do not like soup.

    With this wording, some time in the future your group may be declined public funding because it is only for charitable groups who like soup… just like it says in the city’s manifesto.

    Equal rights means all shall be treated equally under the law. If soup lovers get a special mention it’s not really equality is it?

  • What do you need “regardless of religious affiliation” for in the first place?

  • coyotenose

    Erp’s “or lack thereof” is better wording, I think. Apart from that, the fact that they’re so uncomfortable with a change that clarifies others’ rights without changing their own rights in the slightest is at least indicative of the “head in the sand” mentality that has led to uncountable acts of discrimination and bigotry. It may even indicate that the true feelings of these elected officials are that atheists are evil.

    That possibility makes a seemingly insignificant change into a necessary one.

  • Skins

    Why is “regardless of religious affiliation” even needed? Doesn’t “every individual” include….well, EVERYONE?

    If adding “or secular” is not acceptable, have them take out “religious”… isn’t needed.

  • The phrase the Supreme Court has used is “Religious Viewpoint”. Religious affiliation seems to bias being affiliated with a religion, but religious viewpoint would include people who are believers and those who aren’t and doesn’t say anything about if they are affiliated with a religious organization.

  • JD

    I prefer “or lack thereof”, though I think the existing phrase implicitly covers it. I prefer to think there are better things to worry about, because any government figure that takes an action that assumes that it requires religious belief is setting him/her self up for a legal defeat and waste legal funds.

  • Roxane

    I was just going to say what JD said.

    But I’m not quite so sanguine about the likelihood of no one ever suing on these grounds. After all, despite Kitzmiller v. Dover, my state is trying to sneak ID in by means of some clever phrasing.

  • Jim H

    Some interesting comments, but soup and boat ownership are not the same as religion–hardly anyone has ever gone to war over soup.*

    I think it’s important to include “or lack thereof” if it’s important to have this manifesto in the first place. Minnesota may be different, but in the places where I have lived (NY and TX), public officials take an oath to support and defend the US Constitution; the first (and ninth) amendments would seem to cover this. That said, it would be nice to have everything spelled out.

    *I have never been moved to violence over this, but I do feel strongly that clam chowder should be red. But most places in the US, outside of New York, seem to prefer it white. But they have the right to be misguided thusly…

  • mike

    “the rights of every individual… to freedom, DIGNITY, and security regardless of religious affiliation…”
    They are also uncomfortable with the word “secular” as if it had some SINISTER meaning.
    So they really do want to tolerate and respect the rights of the secularists, but they don’t want to say so because they think that we are creepy.

    Put some additional wording in there. I like “or a lack thereof”.

    This is the exact reason why additional explicit wording should be put in. If they don’t want to recognize us then how do they expect the common citizen to suddenly interpret that they really did want to recognize us?

    In addition there is precedent that this could become an issue. If they are not going to recognize the rights of the 10-15% minority then they might as well not draft this document that recognizes the rights of the minorities.

  • Rickster

    I was going to say I really prefer the “or a lack thereof” wording, but then something else hit me. Is the purpose or the wording to include protection those who “lack a religious affiliation” or those who are “affiliated with a secular group”? Adding the term secular could actually change the whole meaning of the phrase to be more about overall affiliations than said religion.

    So I guess for me I’d still prefer “or a lack thereof”. I also don’t like having secular because it sounds like a group you join. Similarly I resist the political term “independent” and instead always refer to myself as “non-partisan”.

  • Sackbut

    Count me in favor of “or lack thereof”. I don’t like “or secular affiliation” as it implies some kind of affiliation with some well-formed group. The point of the phrase in the first place is not so much to forbid discrimination based on belonging to a particular church, but rather to forbid discrimination based on type of religion. Someone who is an unaffiliated Christian is also not covered by “religious affiliation”.

  • Whatever happened to the word “creed,” and would it be preferable here?

  • Drew M.

    The wording should probably be “regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof”

    This is exactly what I was thinking.

  • Patrick

    “or lack thereof” ends in a preposition, so I’m against it. I like making them accept “secular” folk in writing.

    OTOH, this smells like another petty semantics battle . . .

  • Anna

    I agree with everyone else on the “lack thereof”. Secular can mean various things, even a religious person can support a secular state. It also seems to have a creep-factor for some people thanks to fundamenalists and fox news.

  • Drakk

    What is wrong with “the rights of every individual… to freedom, dignity, and security” on its own? Is it necessary to even mention religion?

  • Digitus Impudicus

    I like “religious or political viewpoint”. That way it protects those evil communists as well.

    @Jim H
    Red clam chowder is the nastiest stuff in the world. I accidentally bought some once and almost puked trying to eat it as it was so disgusting. But I support your right to prefer it. 🙂 Just don’t try to sneak it into my pantry.

  • Ron in Houston

    I’m firmly in the “regardless of religious affiliation” includes atheists camp.

    I say tackle more important issues.

  • martha

    If I was the city attorney I would not accept the “or secular” language because it broadly includes affiliations that are not simply “no religion” and may lead to unintended consequences.

    The other option is to drop the religious language entirely and just have people entitled to freedom, dignity and security. Whatever dignity means. Risky word. I don’t like the ordinance at all.

  • I agree that the language “regardless of religious affiliation” could imply that you won’t be discriminated against as long as you belonged to one of the recognized affiliations. The Boy Scouts do this. You are fine as long as you belong to one of the official Boy Scout sanctioned religions.

    Changing it to “regardless of religious or secular affiliation” might only add those that are religious but don’t want the government to impose a single religion on people. Consider a community with two different religions. They may all agree that government should not favor one over the other but nevertheless, everybody should be a member of one of them. It is possible that everybody in the community could be a member of that secular organization and still discriminate against non-believers.

    Making it “regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof” might just add coverage to those that are religious but between churches (for example if you are not currently affiliated with a church because you left your former church and are looking for a new church. The powers that be may still want some kind of positive oath of religious belief.

    Personally, I like the language “religious viewpoint” better. I find it a bit more difficult to find ways to abuse that language. For example, I have the religious viewpoint that all religious belief and creeds are man-made. Our good buddy Robert W has the viewpoint that a loving God will look after those that accept Him as their Lord and Savior. We would both be covered with that “religious viewpoint” language.

  • KP

    Seriously, let this one go. As a non-believer, I’m growing increasingly annoyed over seeing little nit-picky crap like this in the news all of the time; it makes us look just as bad as the religious fundamentalists.

  • Sean Santos

    I think the wording is strange; what exactly is a “secular affiliation”?

    However, if the only effect would be to explicitly include the irreligious, I think there’s no reason not to do it (if it had no effect, than no harm done, and if it did eventually have an effect, that effect would be positive).

    My only beef with it is the strange wording.

  • Mihangel apYrs

    Unfortunately unless it’s explicitly included some will be able to say it’s left out delliberately.

  • Ben

    OTOH, this smells like another petty semantics battle . . .

    The courts wage endless battles on “petty semantics”. Legal loopholes are a defence attorney’s pay day, so it’s always useful to plug the holes, even if the distinctions seem petty.

  • Tommy

    How about, “regardless of a religious affiliation.”
    Changes it from meaning “without regard to the person’s religious affiliation” to “without regard to the topic of religious affiliation.”

  • Jake

    What if you just drop religion from the manifesto…[The manifesto] upholds “the rights of every individual… to freedom, dignity, and security regardless of affiliation…”

  • Alex

    Similarly, the First Amendment is clear about how we all have “freedom of religion” but we’ve had to constantly battle about how that phrasing includes the freedom to have no religion.

    Hemant, this suggests that the phrase “freedom of religion” appears in Firsts Amendment. The phrasing is “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” While there is certainly wiggle room about what constitutes “free exercise thereof” etc., it’s pretty clear that the freedom to have no religion is in there.

  • Kimpatsu

    Robert should pursue this to the bitter end. How many times have faithheads told you that in America, there is freedom OF religion, but not freedom FROM religion (i.e., it doesn’t matter which religion you have, so long as you profess some faith). We need to make explicit the fact that no faith is not only a different category from some faith, but that no faith is also deserving of equal protection. Make those dominoes fall, and our struggle for equality will grow progressively easier.

  • Peter Mahoney

    I agree with the idea to add “or lack thereof”.

    We could say that ‘non-religious’ is IMPLIED, but the whole idea of outlining specifics of what groups are covered by equal rights (e.g. specifying ‘religious’) is for the policy to give examples of what it really means, or where its creators think it should apply. If you are going to specify ‘religious’ affiliations as being protected, it would be ironic to NOT mention the minority group that actually needs protection against discrimination, which is the NON-religious.

    Their current version is like saying they are going to protect the rights of all Minnesota citizens, regardless of Caucasian-ness (whiteness). Who would argue that the “degree of being Caucasian” includes those who are black, and thus the policy protecting Caucasian-diversity includes blacks?

    Similarly, it is ludicrous to imply that text explicitly protecting the “religious” somehow automatically protects the non-religious.

  • Erp

    @Patrick. Thereof is not a preposition and has been used at the end of sentences for over a 1000 years. Substitute ‘of it’ for ‘thereof’ if you are hyperconcerned.

  • gsw

    Suggest that the USA, along with Europe, works towards getting atheists recognised an non-affiliated. If the USA has the same problem Europe has, getting the various churches to admit that people are not members of the community will be hard. The catholic church in particular is unwilling to let you go (but that is a money thing, unlike the islamic umma, who considers it treason).
    Anyhow, when enough people are no longer members of a religion, we can take
    “the rights of every individual… to freedom, dignity, and security regardless of religious affiliation…”
    to apply to the minority groups who need protection from being laughed at due to them talking to themselves, sometimes from a very undignified position.

  • Freemage

    I think part of the problem here arises from the multiplicity of individuals who might, theoretically, be excluded by the language as it stands:

    1: Irreligious faithful (those who ‘believe’, but are not members of a church or group, and thus are ‘unaffiliated’), which would include most non-Unitarian deists, as well as a lot of the Christians I know.

    2: “Mushy Agnostics”–those who basically don’t really believe, but also don’t really think about the why of that very much.

    3: Closet Atheists–those who strongly don’t believe, but, as we’ve seen in the Ask Richard letters, often are uncomfortable (or flat out unable) to come out to their families or community.

    4: Active Secularists–those who strongly identify not merely with atheism, but also with the atheist movement. This might even include some believers who regard themselves as “Political Atheists”–who recognize that a non-secular society is the best guarantee they have of being able to continue to practice their faith unmolested, and thus choose to support atheist groups.

    And most of the proposed changes I’ve seen so far (including the original proposal of “or secular affiliation”) fail to completely address the concerns of all these groups–while doing so would tend to make the ordinance increasingly cumbersome and unweildy (and also are prone to attack on the grounds that the diversity supporters are being too picayune and petty).

    A better approach, in my opinion, would be to leave the current wording as-is, but to include a short “definitions” section at the beginning or end of the manifesto: “Religious affiliation: This should be understood to include all variations upon religious belief, including the lack thereof, and include protections for those who choose to advocate for secular causes as individuals or in organized groups.”

    Hammering out the semantics is important, but it can be just as important to make certain the core declarations read clearly. The ‘definitions’ options gives the writers some freedom of rhetoric.

  • martha

    Freemage, I like the idea of a definition but I do not like adding “protections for those who choose to advocate for secular causes as individuals or in organized groups.” The ordinance proposes to protect an individual’s “freedom, dignity and security.” I do not want an ordinance that gives dignity to what may be abhorrent causes. Freedom of speech maybe, but not necessarily more. It does depend on the cause. So, I think the definition should be limited to defining religious affiliation as including no affiliation or no religion at all.

  • Freemage

    Martha: A fair point–really, I should have said “atheist causes”, or somesuch. The point is (for example), a student who is a member of the SSA should feel that that membership is not considered acceptable grounds for failing to receive the aforementioned dignity from his teachers and school administrators.

  • Brian

    It’s worth pointing out that the Supreme Court has ruled atheism and similar secular beliefs which refer to “matters of ultimate concern” and are “parallels to what religious people consider God” (paraphrasing) are considered “religious” for 1st amendment purposes.

    See US v. Seeger, Torasco v. Watkins, et al.

    I see this as more of a failure of language. The common joke with “atheism” of course being.. why would I not believe in something that doesn’t exist?

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