Both houses of Congress have now passed a resolution that says, on the record, that “freedom of thought and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion.” That particular passage comes in response to the slaughter of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh.
If President Obama signs it into law, the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150) would be the first piece of legislation to include the word “non-theist.”
That’s the good news. There’s a downside, though.
Earlier this year, we posted about how the new bill would amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. While the bill offered extended protections to atheists, it also defended the rights of those who wanted to partake in ritualistic animal slaughter and male circumcision.
Here’s what the Act would look like with the new changes (in red) if President Obama signs it into law. The portions relevant to atheists are in bold.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”. Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching”. The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion. Governments have the responsibility to protect the fundamental rights of their citizens and to pursue justice for all. Religious freedom is a fundamental right of every individual, regardless of race, sex, country, creed, or nationality, and should never be arbitrarily abridged by any government.
Though not confined to a particular region or regime, religious persecution and the specific targeting of non-theists, humanists, and atheists because of their beliefs is often particularly widespread, systematic, and heinous under totalitarian governments and in countries with militant, politicized religious majorities and in regions where non-state actors exercise significant political power and influence.
Those are wonderful changes. It’s often assumed that religious freedom applies to those of us without religion, too, but there’s nothing wrong with making that explicit.
The American Humanist Association celebrated the bill in a press release:
“Legislators are finally recognizing the human dignity of humanists and granting the nontheistic community the same protections and respect that have been given to religious communities,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “With the increasing global persecution of humanists and atheists at the hands of religious authoritarians, we’re proud that Congress and the US Department of State are standing for the liberty of all people, both religious and non-religious,” Speckhardt added, in reference to findings from the recent release of the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s 2016 Freedom of Thought report.
“A historic piece of legislation that for the first time in our nation’s history recognizes non-theists, the International Religious Freedom Act is the result of extensive advocacy efforts from the humanist community and the support of our religious allies,” said Matthew Bulger, legislative director of the American Humanist Association. “Religious freedom for all people, theists and non-theists, is an American value we must protect.”
More troubling, however, is that the same bill requires that a mandatory Human Rights Report for Congress, which includes a section on “violations of religious freedom,” now include this section in red:
An assessment and description of the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom in each foreign country, including persecution of one religious group by another religious group, religious persecution by governmental and nongovernmental entities, persecution targeted at individuals or particular denominations or entire religions, persecution of lawyers, politicians, or other human rights advocates seeking to defend the rights of members of religious groups or highlight religious freedom violations, prohibitions on ritual animal slaughter or male infant circumcision, the existence of government policies violating religious freedom, and the existence of government policies concerning
That sounds really confusing, so let me paraphrase: it means that if people who defend male infant circumcision or animal slaughter are “persecuted,” the U.S. will consider it a violation of religious freedom. Our government is therefore giving tacit approval to those practices.
When the Senate had the chance to remove that section from the bill, they didn’t do it.
No one wants to see people persecuted regardless of their beliefs, but our government shouldn’t endorse these barbaric practices even in a symbolic way. They shouldn’t be protecting those who seek to harm anyone else.
Incidentally, the AHA (as an organization) hasn’t taken a stance on those issues so their press release didn’t mention them. But it certainly puts a damper on any celebration of the bill’s passage.