By Jessica Mendoza
As the debate around religious freedom heats up across the country, one group has become increasingly central to the conversation: Atheists.
Earlier this month, lawmakers in Madison, Wis. voted to give atheists the same protections for employment, housing, and public accommodations as other groups – making the city the first in the nation to include atheists in its list of protected classes.
The decision, coupled with growing media attention and the rising number of atheists and religiously unaffiliated across the United States, may be a sign of shifting perceptions around those who reject religious beliefs.
Among the least accepted groups in the United States today, atheists have long faced discrimination in politics, military service, and schools, as well as hostility in everyday life.
Eight states have laws that technically prohibit atheists from holding office: Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. A 1961 Supreme Court ruling prevents these laws from being actively enforced, yet there are no openly atheist members of Congress, The Washington Post reported.
In 2013, news magazine The Week published a piece about the US military’s religious requirement for recruits, which classified as a potential risk indicator a “lack or loss of spiritual faith.” While advocates of the policy said it aimed to strengthen emotional well-being among troops, where suicide rates were on the rise, others saw it as discriminatory and unconstitutional, according to the report.
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