Atheists Score Major Win In Federal Court

Nov 14, 2014

Credit: Shuttershock

By Jack Jenkins

A federal district court in Oregon has declared Secular Humanism a religion, paving the way for the non-theistic community to obtain the same legal rights as groups such as Christianity.

On Thursday, October 30, Senior District Judge Ancer Haggerty issued a ruling on American Humanist Association v. United States, a case that was brought by the American Humanist Association (AHA) and Jason Holden, a federal prisoner. Holden pushed for the lawsuit because he wanted Humanism — which the AHA defines as “an ethical and life-affirming philosophy free of belief in any gods and other supernatural forces” — recognized as a religion so that his prison would allow for the creation of a Humanist study group. Haggerty sided with the plaintiffs in his decision, citing existing legal precedent and arguing that denying Humanists the same rights as groups such as Christianity would be highly suspect under the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which declares that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

“The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes,” the ruling read.

The decision highlights the unusual position of the Humanist community, which has tried for years to obtain the same legal rights as more traditional religious groups while simultaneously rebuking the existence of a god or gods. But while some Humanists may chafe at being called a “religion,” others feel that the larger pursuit of equal rights trumps legal classifications.

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28 comments on “Atheists Score Major Win In Federal Court

  • 1
    Light Wave says:

    That’s just not good enough – Atheism is most definitely not a religion – atheists do not ‘flock’ – we have no need for shepherds….. and there should not be any comparison to christianity….every atheist I know will not be herded into a labelled box….we’re all too diverse……and distrust authority at some if not all levels…..I’ve learned to stay away from the corruptors and don’t wish to be associated with or compared to a religious cult that is based on traditional mythology and ritual – Atheism is ever evolving while Religion remains stagnant and out of touch

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  • Exactly, or approximately even, what “Equal Rights” does this grant? The right to be silly on Sunday? The right to not have the building you are being silly on Sunday in being not subject to taxation?

    I suspect, and those in Los Estados Unitas please correct me, but if the above is correct, it sounds more like monetary considerations than a real step forwards.

    Were I an American atheist (almost an oxymoron, mayhaps) I would prefer to see the tax exempt status of religions stripped from them, rather than extended to a “new” religion.

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  • @OP- Holden pushed for the lawsuit because he wanted Humanism — which the AHA defines as “an ethical and life-affirming philosophy free of belief in any gods and other supernatural forces” — recognized as a religion so that his prison would allow for the creation of a Humanist study group.

    I think having the “ethical philosophy” recognised in law as having the same equal rights as religious philosophies, is the point in question, regardless of the potential misinterpretations of words.

    Humanists and atheists are entitled to legal parity in forming study groups, and this has now been confirmed.

    “The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes,” the ruling read.

    Unlike “atheism” (Lack of belief in gods), “Secular Humanism” is an ethical philosophy and its adherents are entitled to the same rights as adherents of other philosophies.

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  • This was my comment on this subject on another site:

    I consider the Oregon case a bitter compromise, hardly a victory.

    The issue was the Federal Bureau of Prisons rejected “his requests to form a humanist study group on grounds that humanism was not listed as a religious affiliation.” The question is why is a “religious affiliation” required in the first place, in whatever public setting, for a group of people to attain the same legal status and protection.

    The tragedy in this case is that the only way a non-religious group could achieve equality was for the judge to “recognize secular humanism as a religion”. The government in this case can’t even recognize individuals except through religious filters.

    It’s true that the Oxford Dictionary’s secondary definition of “religion” can mean “A pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance”. This usage however, renders the distinction between religion and secularism useless – ideology would be a better word. Most people still ascribe to the primary definition of the word –

    Religion: The belief in and worship of a super human controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

    People of no religion should not be categorized this way. There is no supernaturalism or worship in humanism. “Religious affiliation” should not be be the determining factor.

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  • 6
    Light Wave says:

    Yeah a very patronising way to sort of concede to the rights of all the diverse people (not in their religious club), who don’t share their delusions. Their label of atheism shows a symptom of being religious – they reduce everything down to one word. Well we are all humans and have the human right to equality regardless of the pigeon holes that religion puts us in – the law makers are seeing the world through biased religious eyes and they make law in their favour…However society has modernised and claims to separate belief systems from government and law, but they wear their religion like a protective shell with handy tax free privileges……

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  • I were the American Humanist Association I’d appeal the ruling. While the win is gratifying, and if the legal judgement has no further explanation or expansion of the “Atheism is a religion”, I would go back to the court and appeal.

    The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes

    If the court documents show that they are just raising an equivalence, and it was a poor choice of words, that would be OK, but it would have to be clear in the explanatory memorandum that this was the intention of the court. If the court was actually suggesting that atheism was a religion, I would be instructing the lawyers to appeal forthwith.

    Jason Holden, a federal prisoner. Holden pushed for the lawsuit because he wanted Humanism — which the AHA defines as “an ethical and life-affirming philosophy free of belief in any gods and other supernatural forces” — recognized as a religion so that his prison would allow for the creation of a Humanist study group.

    The legal principle here is freedom of association. That Holder was prevented from forming a Humanist study group, because the prison only permitted such groups if they were religious, is the law that needs overturning. The court correctly found that the constitution says, “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” And while the American Humanist Association got a win on these grounds, they need to appeal to the courts again, to invoke the right to free association, even in prison, of people with like views, leaving religion out of it. They need to apply the right to free speech under the constitution to this situation.

    I can just see it now. Every time an atheist says something in a discussion forum, the religious with shove this legal ruling down our throat saying we’re just another religion. I can also see legal precedent higher in the courts, extending this ruling, which IMHO, is not what atheists want.

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  • 9
    Light Wave says:

    Yeah David its a shame for atheists that at last there is some concession, although done for the right reason to get the atheist prisoner his rights… its done in an unacceptable manner of insisting atheism is a religion…..The law is an ass……..The courts and prisons are clearly in the wrong A. to assume that their frame of reference should be religious and to create labels for the non religious and B. that individuals should not need to belong to any group to receive equal rights……..

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  • All very good observations.
    What do you suppose the writers of the Constitution meant by the word “religion”? How can anyone be sure what they meant? What should they have meant?
    As valuable as the Constitution has been, I think we hold it in much too high esteem and it’s time to give it a little freshening up. If we think the writers really meant “ideology” or “philosophy” (or if we think one of those words or another would improve our Constitution), then for goodness sake we should amend it.
    That said, I agree that this should never have been a Constitutional issue. The prison rules were poorly defined. I sense that the prison (if it were allowed to make its own rules) would prefer not to allow any sort of “study groups” at all, but were forced to accommodate “religious” groups to conform to federal regulations based on the establishment clause. Unfortunately that “error” (arguably) has now led to another.

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  • “The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment
    Clause purposes,” the ruling read.

    Can someone please explain to me how this is a victory? Aside from the obvious issues (secular humanism is not a religion in any conceivable way and creating a law to make life easier for the current system that embraces religious freedom in more nebulous terms everyday) it’s only going to make the uninformed theists that have been espousing the ‘atheism is a religion argument’ only worse because they won’t acknowledge the legal maneuvering being done to create this apparent ‘legal haven’ for secular humanists to basically be on the same page as other religions which was never the point in the first place. Hell it’s not even the smartest solution for the problem this is suppose to address.

    Why did this need to happen just to create a study group in prison? I mean look at this:

    Holden pushed for the lawsuit because he wanted Humanism — which the
    AHA defines as “an ethical and life-affirming philosophy free of
    belief in any gods and other supernatural forces” — recognized as a
    religion so that his prison would allow for the creation of a Humanist
    study group.

    Is everyone involved completely missing the contradiction of the notion based on the definition provided in this statement alone of what humanism is? How about just giving him the damn study group? Does the Establishment clause require a religion for use in this case?

    This is not a victory. Not for atheism and certainly not for reason.

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  • What difference does it make?
    1. tax deductible membership dues
    2. no property taxes if they buy land
    3. conscientious objection taken more seriously.
    4. can’t be involved in politics.

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  • A “Just” verdict, which should ensure there is less discrimination against Atheists…..BUT……….
    How do we deny the theists claim that “Atheism is just another religion” when legally it is.
    A short term victory undeniably, but I fear it could well undermine the long term objective of providing a more rational and enlightened environment, because clearly the legal definition is a nonsense.

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  • Lawyers have a remarkable talent of making reality as unrecognisable as possible !

    Of course many years’ training is involved. Maybe not so many years as a theologian requires ? Stalin was something of a theologian. His rhetoric made the reality somewhat unrecognisable also.

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  • I see it as a kind of victory. you’re not going to overturn religious privalage in one court ruling so giving what is essentially non-religion the same rights as religion is the best you could hope for right now.

    it will be down to future lawmakers to analyse this until someone realises that a ruling stating “no-religion” has the same status as “all religions” that the whole question of religion can be ejected from law and and replace with a new amendment stating “believe what you like but the law’s the law”.

    This is a victory because it sends a message to people too stupid to understand that being non religious is fine. religion is falling in the US, it’s a sticking plaster for now. Humanists are still a minority and need laws to protect them until humanism is the norm

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  • Humans are the only species that have superstitions and gods. We’re also the only species that abuses other species for entertainment, ‘sport’, gluttony (especially for religious celebrations), profit, sacrifice (to it’s gods), or for ‘pleasure’. So I cannot call myself a humanist, because I don’t think we are a very nice species. If I need a label it would be Atheist and about 95% Misanthropist.

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  • Why all the complaints. Secular Humanists now have all the same rights as any “religious ” group. In order for that to happen, in our world of labels, we have to be labelled as something.

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  • I agree with your first point but not the second. Have you seen cats “play” with their prey or bring a “trophy” home? They would pursue other animals or prolong the chase but not consume them, thus the object appears to be the hunt/sport/pleasure. The same behavior is observed in dolphins, orcas and primates. It seems the only requirements for this kind of behavior are brains capable of curiosity and boredom and the power to do it, both of which we have plenty. We are no nicer or crueler than the others except perhaps in scale of our action. Our convoluted brain may also explain your first point.

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  • 23
    Matthew says:

    I am an American. Just as the article states, it has given this prisoner the right to form a group of humanists to associate and philosophize with. It will likely lead to other rights, but so far that is all. This court is too low of a court for it to be a big change.

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  • 24
    Matthew says:

    The monetary (tax) considerations of which you speak all probably already exist because the association would be considered a non-profit, so the question as to whether it should have them as a religious entity is academic, and wouldn’t come up.

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  • 25
    Matthew says:

    “They” didn’t use the word ‘Atheism’, as far as I can see. Secular Humanism is a set of positive beliefs that may or may not also be held by a particular Atheist. You seem to be unjustifiably conflating the two. There are plenty of Atheists who don’t agree with Secular Humanism, though this may not hold true in wherever you are from in particular.

    As a set of beliefs concerning values and moral considerations, it is probably appropriate to treat Secular Humanism as a religion. What do you think of Buddhists who don’t believe in god(s)? Buddhism doesn’t require such belief, after all, and most Buddhists I’ve encountered never talk about god(s). Should Buddhism enjoy the protections of a religion under the American Bill of Rights?

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  • 27
    Matthew says:

    The Founders probably meant to include Atheism under the religion clause of the first amendment. As ill advised as that was, the purpose of the 1st was to establish equal freedom of religion, including for Atheists and Secular Humanists. This ruling reflects that probability, as it should.

    Interpretation of The Constitution should not ignore originalist approaches. To insist on not having Constitutional rights until The Constitution explicitly states ‘Atheists have equal rights with Religionists’ would be a fool’s errand.

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  • 28
    Matthew says:

    To clarify: If an American were to insist that an American Atheist doesn’t have the right to not believe in god, and the Atheist refused to argue the existing protection under 1st amendment’s religious clause (right of association and other clauses will not always work), then the Atheist would quite literally be left without Constitutional protection. Since it takes a HUGE effort to change the Constitution, atheists would be without forceful legal protection for the foreseeable future. All because Atheists don’t like the way the founders thought about freedom of religion. Pure silliness in my book.

    A better approach would be to accept the protection, and then seek to have The Constitution amended. Argue that “Although the Founders meant the religion clause to protect Atheists, that way of thinking about it is antiquated. Atheism should be protected as a non-religion”. Then you win the legal victory as well as the semantic one, simply by making the argument.

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