About five years ago, former President Ronald Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan as he’s known, appeared in an advertisement for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in which he declared that he was “an unabashed atheist,” and ended the commercial by saying he was not afraid of “burning in hell.” Since that time, Ron Reagan and his ad have appeared occasionally on cable news shows to call attention to FFRF. The purposes of the Foundation are “to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism,” according to its website. National membership in FFRF includes “approximately 32,200 freethinkers: atheists, agnostics and skeptics of any pedigree.”
When it comes to religious liberties in the United States, are the freedoms of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers or the nonreligious protected? The answer is yes by federal law. But there are caveats. According to numerous reports, the constitutions of seven states–Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas–ban atheists from running for political office. And an eighth state, Pennsylvania, has no outright prohibition, but its constitution says that anyone who wants to hold government office should believe in God.
Nevertheless, some state bans have been overturned in rare cases that have reached the U.S. Supreme Court. As the U.S. Constitution notes “no religious test” should ever be required for federal office,” but there is nothing in the Constitution about state offices. As a result, “Not believing in God is political poison, at least if you express that belief openly,” wrote Nick Wing in huffingtonpost.com. “While the most severe mistreatment of atheists may take place in fundamentalist nations, political discrimination is pervasive across the U.S.” King also pointed out, ”Not believing in God could make it harder to get a job, though that would of course require a would-be employer to be aware of a job applicant’s nontheistic beliefs…. issues of faith carry over to hiring decisions.”
In addition, when there are divorces, judges have sometimes denied “custody rights because of their apparent disinterest in organized religion, or in other cases, of atheist parents being ordered to attend church so that their children can undergo “systematic spiritual training.”
Then there are the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). A potential Scout must repeat the Scout Oath: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” In December 2018, an opinion piece by Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore in the Washington Post pointed out: “Requiring scouts to believe in God is as pernicious and unconstitutional a discrimination against nonbelievers as the current requirement in the state constitutions.” However, the columnists add that the BSA has allowed the Unitarian Universalist Association “ultimate authority over a scout’s spiritual commitment to their individual congregation. This would specifically allow Unitarian Universalist-sponsored troops to claim humanism as an acceptable form of spirituality.”
Beyond the Scouts, there is some hope for allowing people to declare themselves with impunity as nonbelievers or atheists. During his administration, President Barack Obama signed the International Frank R. Wolf Religious Freedom Act of 2016, which was supported by a nonpartisan effort of the American Humanist Association. The Act states that “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.” The Act also condemns “specific targeting of non-theists, humanists, and atheists because of their beliefs” and legally forbids forcing “non-believers or non-theists to recant their beliefs or to convert.”
Then along comes the Trump administration and its current undermining of religious freedoms for nonbelievers. That’s another story, which often involves evangelicals and far-right Trump followers, as well as some Americans who are uncomfortable with atheists and nonreligious folks.