While the anti-discrimination ordinance enacted in Madison, Wisconsin adding “nonreligion” to the list of protected categories was touted as the first of its kind in the nation, that’s not quite true. While it may well be the first ordinance specifically protecting those who have no religion, there is already a federal law protecting atheists against work place discrimination.
Under Title VII, the federal employment discrimination law, atheists have long been considered to be protected under the prohibition against religious discrimination. That doesn’t mean there’s no need for laws specifically protecting atheists against discrimination.
Indeed, atheists are one of the most discriminated against groups in the U.S. and the world.
While it’s unconstitutional to impose a religious test on candidates, seven states still have laws on the books requiring candidates to have a belief in god. Even though these laws would likely not pass legal muster if challenged, it’s still almost impossible for a professed nonbeliever to be elected in the U.S. Voters would prefer Muslim, gay or pretty much anyone to atheist candidates. Like gays in the past (and some still in the present), many atheists are closeted to avoid the stigma of simply not believing what others believe.O
According to the American Humanist Association: About half of Americans would object to their child marrying an atheist, and only 33% would hire an atheist in a child care position. Thirteen countries revoke citizenship, deny marriage and even kill atheists.
Whether you like them or not, it’s illegal for employers to discriminate against atheists. Further, if an atheist asks for a religious accommodation like being excused from a religious invocation at the beginning of staff meetings, the employer must grant the accommodation.
If a believer of any religion proselytizes to an atheist employee and the atheist asks them to stop, continued proselytizing could be illegal religious harassment. If an atheist employer goes to HR and reports this kind of harassment, HR needs to treat it the same as any other kind of religious harassment and nip it in the bud.
The reason I think this ordinance is a positive step is that many employers don’t realize atheists are legally protected. I hear, “That’s not a religion,” all too often. At least in Madison, it will be clear to employers that they can’t discriminate against those with no religion.
If you think you’ve been discriminated against at work, contact an employment lawyer in your state about your rights. And you do have rights.
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