The Great Courses

Non-Believers Have Rights

Feb 14, 2013 at 4:49 PM
5 years ago

As the number and presence of nonbelievers grows, so do the number of cases in which we hear of fellow nonbelievers facing discrimination. Nonbelievers do have rights other than freedom of religion, and some of those rights are laid out in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was generally established to protect minorities.

(For those outside the U.S., you might be protected by similar rights in your own country. I've included links for the U.K. and Canada at the bottom of this post, as well. If you reside in another country and you happen to be familiar with similar rights in your land, please mention them and/or include links in the comments for the benefit of others in your country of residence.)

In the wake of protests by African Americans, most notably those of Birmingham in 1963, John F. Kennedy gave a famous speech on civil rights in which he expressed his desire for legislation, "giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments."

But the rights established following Kennedy's speech don't only protect people from discrimination based on race; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis religion too, as well as color, gender, or national origin. Protection has also been extended to same-sex couples in some court cases.

(Yes, I know. Atheism is *not* a religion. Unless you get into legal territory, in which case it sometimes is for legal purposes. I've included links below to articles that explain the hows and whys. For now, just know that atheists have, for legal purposes, already been established as protected in the same way a religious person would be.)

Just as a shop or restaurant cannot refuse to serve someone because of their race, it also cannot refuse to serve nonbelievers because we don't have imaginary friends. The same generally applies to things such as housing and employment.

A business open to the public must serve the public; business owners cannot pick and choose with whom they will do business on the basis of their personal bigotry against people protected by the Civil Rights Act. In addition, 42 USC § 2000a–2 says (I've provided links to the sections mentioned in the text below at the end of this post):

No person shall

(a) withhold, deny, or attempt to withhold or deny, or deprive or attempt to deprive any person of any right or privilege secured by section 2000a or 2000a–1 of this title, or

(b) intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person with the purpose of interfering with any right or privilege secured by section 2000a or 2000a–1 of this title, or

(c) punish or attempt to punish any person for exercising or attempting to exercise any right or privilege secured by section 2000a or 2000a–1 of this title.

(There are a couple of small exceptions involving private clubs such as golf courses, but generally speaking, no business open to the public can turn you away merely for your lack of belief.

In other words, for example, a Christian fundie landlord who discovers you're a dreaded atheist cannot kick you out of your rented property nor attempt to intimidate you into doing so just because you're a nonbeliever.

I also need to add that I am not a lawyer, and in some countries there are limits on what information lay people can provide (hence the legal disclaimer at the very bottom of this post) nor can a lay person give legal advice.

If you've got questions on this topic or you've been subjected to discrimination, please contact a qualified legal professional who can give you advice on your personal situation. I've included links for some resources below. If you know of other resources, please put them in the comments, as well.

Additional information:

Text of the Civil Rights Act:

Discrimination in employment:

(Religious schools have been given an exception in their hiring practices and the like)

"Title VII also protects employees or applicants from discrimination if they do not subscribe to a particular religious view and/or are atheist."

For Canadians:

For those in the U.K.:

For U.S. legal assistance:

At this link, you can find your local A.C.L.U. office:

Freedom from Religion Foundation, particularly useful in cases of Church/State violation:

For those both in the U.S. and in other countries, you can also try going to Google and running a search for the words: legal aid discrimination (your state, country, and/or local area here)

Articles on atheism and legal issues:

A great article on the subject from The Friendly Atheist:

Atheism and the Law, by Matt Dillahunty:

Freedom from Religion Foundation on Church Bulletin Discounts:

Jessica Ahlquist case:


Having said all of that, I sincerely hope there never comes a time in your life when you're faced with discrimination, and I hope this post ends up being totally useless to you.

- Meg

Legal Disclaimer:

This post is intended to provide general information. The information in this post is subject to change as laws evolve over time, might be overturned, and vary from place to place.

The information and links in this post are intended for general informational purposes only. The links and information in this post are in no way intended to be used or seen as legal advice. The author is not a legal expert or legal professional and is not qualified to give legal advice, has no intention whatsoever of giving legal advice, and assumes absolutely no responsibility for errors or omissions in this post, or anything which might result in damages, litigation, financial loss or expense, or other consequences.

There is absolutely no warranty that the information in this post is correct, and no assurance that anything in this post is true, precise, accurate, or in any way reliable.

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