Minnesota Atheists’ Public Policy Positions

INDEX

Prologue
I. Government Entanglement with Religion
II. Religious Privilege
III. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) Rights
IV. Reproductive Rights
V. Public Education
VI. Religiously Hostile Workplace Environment
VII. End of Life Issues
VIII. Dealing with Islam
IX. Blasphemy Laws
Revision History

 

PROLOGUE

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is the foundation of the political policies of Minnesota Atheists: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

We further endorse the three-pronged test established in the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman Supreme Court case:

1.     The government’s action must have a legitimate secular purpose;

2.     The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion; and

3.     The government’s action must not result in an “excessive entanglement” of the government and religion.

We are committed in support of secular government at every level, and oppose every government preference for religion.

We actively support the rights of all individuals under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. We recognize that if government is ever permitted to define religious orthodoxy, that power will surely be wielded against us. We recognize, however, that government may properly restrict practices of religion that may be harmful to others or endanger public safety. Free Exercise should also not be interpreted to entitle individuals to exemption from laws with a secular purpose that are uniformly applied in nonreligious cases. Such exemptions violate government neutrality towards religion. Free exercise clause violations will usually also violate the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

On other questions of government policy, we support objective application of consequential reasoning, and oppose arguments, whether from the left or right, based upon superstition, religious values and cultural identity based on religious history. We will speak out to oppose the intrusion of religion into public policy debate. Laws must have a secular purpose and justification.

We recognize that a significant, organized and consistent threat to secular government in the United States is posed by politically intrusive religious groups, exemplified by the conservative Christian movement. Minnesota Atheists addresses particular effort to opposing the political agenda of these religious groups. The salient objectives of this political movement have been opposition to reproductive rights such as abortion and birth control; opposition to the legal rights of homosexuals, such as civil marriage and non-discrimination in employment; and the introduction of religious teaching and advocacy in the public education curriculum, such as Intelligent Design, Creationism and abstinence-only sex education.

Minnesota Atheists opposes these religious arguments. We hold that public policy decisions should instead address benefit to society and the rights of individual autonomy. We are a politically diverse community that welcomes as members everyone who opposes religious thinking in public policy, and who advocates consequentially for policies that promote the public good.

We realize there are many worthy causes we could support that have no connection to state/church separation or religious intrusion into our daily lives. While we applaud those who strive to make this a better secular world, and while Minnesota Atheists may sponsor or participate in such events ourselves (e.g. charitable activities that help the poor), our public policies are limited to issues of state/church separation.

 

I. GOVERNMENT ENTANGLEMENT WITH RELIGION

Government endorsement of religion

Minnesota Atheists is committed to rigorous adherence to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” As this principle has been extended to all branches of government by the 14th Amendment, and interpreted by court decisions, it guarantees that government may not prefer one religion over another, nor religion over non-religion.

Display of religious symbols on public property

Opponents of the Establishment Clause work to create symbolic government endorsement of their religion by placing religious symbols prominently on public property. Most common among these displays are Ten Commandments monuments and Christmas nativity scenes. While we believe that these displays should always be considered an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, courts have ruled that they are permissible as part of a larger display of diverse content, as long as its history has shown that it has not created the perception that it is an endorsement of religion.

We believe that these displays should be challenged whenever compliance to this standard of diverse content is in question. Responses to be considered include litigation, if a plaintiff can be found. Then we may work with groups that specialize in First Amendment cases, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or even religious groups that also support the Establishment Clause. Alternately, we may offer a comparable secular monument to create content balance.

Prayer at government sessions

The Supreme Court of the United States has given the federal and state legislatures the right to open their sessions with prayer, and prayer has generally been permitted at City Council meetings. Minnesota Atheists holds that in fact the practice is a prima facie violation of the Establishment Clause, but that if it is permitted it must be non-sectarian and non-denominational. It should be compatible with the views of the entire community, including the nonreligious. The presiding celebrant should be rotated among organizations representing the diverse beliefs of the community. If a representative of Minnesota Atheists should ever have an opportunity to provide the invocation for a government meeting, the invocation should be respectful of the body and its members, and appeal for sound judgment and to universal values such as justice and human rights.

Government funding of church-based programs

Minnesota Atheists supports the blanket prohibition against payment to any religious society as stated in Article 1, Section 16 of the Minnesota State Constitution: “... nor shall any money be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious societies or religious or theological seminaries.” We oppose also federal funding of social welfare programs that are run by church-based organizations, and would like the courts to recommit to the standards of the Lemon Test. Even if government funds are strictly segregated so that none go directly to religious activities, the tax-paid subsidy permits the organization to divert other funds away from the social program.

We therefore call for closing the Council of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. We are also opposed to all earmarks for religious societies in funding bills, and call for whatever action is needed to provide legal standing to affected taxpayers to litigate against establishment clause violations.

Religious Freedom in the Military

Service members may be stationed at bases where there are no colleagues who share their worldview who can satisfy their needs for guidance and counseling. Chaplaincy programs are therefore justified to satisfy these needs, but they must be designed to meet the needs of both religious and secular soldiers. Chaplaincy programs may not favor one religion over any other, nor favor religion over non-religion. If religious chaplains are employed, then an opportunity must be available for secular counselors to serve as chaplains.

All religious activities provided on military bases must be voluntary and non-coercive. Proselytizing by military commanders and clergy must be prohibited. Since, in the military setting, it is sometimes not possible for soldiers to walk away from an unwelcome religious conversation, a policy permitting religious discussion only with mutual consent must be enforced.

Standing

The ability of citizens to challenge Establishment Clause violations in the courts has been restricted by increasingly stringent requirements for legal standing. In cases regarding appending “so help me God” to the presidential oath of office, state requirements that public school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance including “under God,” the National Day of Prayer, and tax credits for donations to religious schools, the courts have been able to avoid considering whether constitutional violations exist by holding that merely being a taxpayer does not confer standing to plaintiffs. The effect of these rulings is to deny any possibility of judicial correction of even blatant violations of the Establishment Clause. Minnesota Atheists believes that simply being a taxpayer in the jurisdiction affected should suffice to prove legal standing in any case over an alleged Establishment Clause violation.

Blue Laws

Minnesota Atheists opposes laws with the sole or primary purpose to advance religious views, especially at the expense of those who don’t hold those views. Minnesota Atheists opposes government-enforced restrictions of trade that are based solely or primarily on actions that are perceived as religiously “sinful” or days that are perceived as “holy.” These are commonly called “blue laws.” Minnesota Atheists opposes such blue laws unless a compelling secular justification can be demonstrated.

Minnesota Atheists opposes the current state law that prohibits liquor stores from selling liquor on Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. Minnesota Atheists opposes the current state law that prohibits car dealerships from selling cars on Sundays.

Taxation of Churches and other nonprofit Corporations

This discussion should be viewed in the context of our country’s history that surrounds the writing and enforcement of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” When we read the principles expressed in this statement, how should we view the taxation of religious property? It is a question that has a long history in our government debate. We will separate our position into two areas of taxation: income and property.

Income: IRS tax exempt status provides churches an exemption from income taxes and allows donors to claim a deduction for funds they donate. Currently, without much review, the IRS gives most religions nonprofit status upon application. The church, however, gives up its right to participate in partisan politics and must not endorse candidates for public office. Secular nonprofits have similar restrictions, although the application and filing process is more in-depth, requires filing an IRS 990 tax form, and provides for annual review of financial statements. Time and again churches violate the requirement to stay out of politics. We call for the IRS to step up enforcement of violations and for all nonprofits to be held to the same standard of reporting.

Property: Today most church property is exempt from taxation. Some states tax church property that is used to generate income, and some do not. Secular nonprofit holdings have a similar exemption but must meet more requirements, while some states that exempt churches from property taxes do not exempt the properties of secular nonprofits. The prevailing law of the land was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Walz v. Tax Common of the City of New York 1970, which established that churches should be exempt from property taxation because they provide a public benefit with their chartable works. The court held that this does not violate the Establishment Clause because it does not take money out of the treasury. The Walz decision assumes that religions provide a greater good than the costs to society of the lost tax revenue. Consider that most property taxes are used to pay for police and fire services and, in some communities, public schools. We contend that the tax should go with the land, and that all properties should pay their fair share, thereby lowering the tax rate of each owner as a way of providing for the good of each owner.

We find support for this argument in the following:

President James A. Garfield addressing Congress on June 22, 1874:

The divorce between Church and state ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no church property anywhere, in any state, or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation, for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that you impose a tax upon the whole community.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, womens’ suffrage campaign, circa 1877:

For every dollar of church property untaxed, all other properties must be taxed one dollar more, and thus the poor man's home bears the burden of maintaining costly edifices from which he & his family are as effectively excluded -- as though a policeman stood to bar their entrance, and in smaller towns all sects are building, building, building, not a little town in the western prairies but has its three & four churches & this immense accumulation of wealth is all exempt from taxation. In the new world as well as the old these rich ecclesiastical corporations are a heavy load on the shoulders of the people, for what wealth escapes, the laboring masses are compelled to meet. If all the church property in this country were taxed, in the same ratio poor widows are today, we could soon roll off the national debt.

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant's message to Congress:

We demand that churches and other ecclesiastical property shall be no longer exempt from taxation. I would also call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that, if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land....it is the accumulation of vast amounts of untaxed church property....In 1850, the church properties in the U.S. which paid no taxes, municipal or state, amounted to about $83 million. In 1860, the amount had doubled; in 1875, it is about $1 billion. By 1900, without check, it is safe to say this property will reach a sum exceeding $3 billion....so vast a sum, receiving all the protection and benefits of government without bearing its portion of the burdens and expenses of the same, will not be looked upon acquiescently by those who have to pay the taxes....I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation.

 

II. RELIGIOUS PRIVILEGE

The First Amendment guarantees that government shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The American College of Catholic Bishops has asserted that this provision exempts them from the mandate in the Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 that employer-provided health insurance policies must cover preventive reproductive services because the Church is morally opposed to contraception.

When the government granted this exemption to churches, the Bishops demanded that it be extended to all enterprises that the Church operates, such as hospitals, colleges and charities. When the government tried to accommodate them by requiring the costs of this coverage to be borne by the insurer, they responded that it was still unacceptable that this coverage be included in any contract to which they were a party. They even demanded that the exemption be extended to Catholic business owners, so that they individually will not be required to violate Church teachings.

This would give their businesses a competitive advantage to be able to provide employees a trimmed-down, lower-cost insurance plan than their secular competitors. Should a religious exemption to the insurance mandate be granted to a Christian Science business owner, who wants to pay only for prayer?

Freedom of religion guarantees the right of an individual to follow the dictates of his or her own conscience, but there is no right to force one’s religious beliefs upon others. Thus, for example, the right to free exercise ensures a business owner of the right to refuse to use contraception, but no right to prevent others from doing so, or to deny them insurance coverage for it. If separation of Church and State means anything, no woman should find herself without access to contraception because of someone else’s religious beliefs.

This demand by the Church is not for freedom of religion, but for special religious privilege. It has long been established that war protestors and pacifists may not withhold part of their tax payments because they object to funding the military, regardless of whether the source of their objection was religious belief.

Government policies should apply equally to religions as long as those policies have a secular purpose and serve a valid secular need. The burden must be on religion to show that the secular purpose can be satisfied in a way that is less offensive to their moral principles.

This principle of government even-handedness should also be applied to claims of “ministerial exception.” The ministerial exemption should apply only to the clergy and other employees whose work duties are primarily ministerial. For example, no Catholic Church should ever be penalized for not hiring a woman as a priest.

But except for this narrow “ministerial exception,” federal and state laws designed to protect all employees should be broadly applied. We disagree with the ruling in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the exception applies not just to ministers, rabbis and priests, but even to secular employees for whom activities related to ministering were a brief and insignificant portion of their job. The ruling has the potential to deny to practically all church employees the equal protection of civil law.

 

III. GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, TRANSGENDER (GLBT) RIGHTS

Minnesota Atheists supports equal rights for all citizens regardless of sexual orientation. This support is based on two rules of law:

1.         The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution states “…nor shall any State… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Thus the Equal Protection Clause demands that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) citizens be treated the same under the law as heterosexual citizens. We are particularly concerned with countering religious groups that wish to limit equal protection under the law due to their religious dogma.

2.         The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The Establishment Clause has been interpreted in Supreme Court decisions to place the following restrictions on government:

a)         Civil laws must have a secular basis.

Any law that would reduce the rights of any class of citizens must have a secular justification. There is no secular reason to deny equal rights and equal protection under the law due to a person’s sexual orientation.

b)         Religious tenets for which the only basis is belief in the supernatural should not become civil law. To turn such religious tenets into civil law is to create a theocracy.

Religious arguments against equal rights and equal protection under the law for GLBT people are based solely on belief in a particular type of god who advocates limiting such rights and protections. As we cannot demonstrate that this god exists, much less confirm its instructions to humanity, we cannot base any secular laws on this supernatural belief.

The Principle of Equality in Practice

Minnesota Atheists’ support for equal rights for all citizens regardless of sexual orientation includes, but is not limited to, the equal right to a civil marriage, with all the accompanying benefits and responsibilities; equal rights to fertility treatments and adoption; the right to openly identify one’s sexual orientation and serve in the military; and the equal right not to be discriminated against in employment and housing. Minnesota Atheists takes no position on what the state chooses to call its civil marriage contracts (e.g., “marriage,” “civil union,” “domestic partnership,” etc.) so long as the same term is used equally for both straight and gay people.

 

IV. REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS

The right of women and couples to plan their reproductive lives is the target of a broad range of continuous legal attacks by religious conservatives. Their tactics to end abortion rights include local, state, and federal legislation and excessive regulation; campaigns to stack the judiciary with opponents of abortion; and constitutional amendment. They also support legislation and FDA regulations to ban or restrict access to varieties of contraceptives. Minnesota Atheists opposes these efforts because of our principle that public policy should never be based on religious values and superstitious thinking.

A common religious claim is that ‘life’ begins at conception, based on ensoulment. More properly stated, this contention is that at the moment of conception the fetus becomes a person whose interests must be considered by public policy. This is a religious value rejected by most Americans, who understand the fetus to be only a potential person.

While Roe v. Wade is a landmark Supreme Court decision for establishing the right to choose abortion based upon an implied constitutional right to privacy, its contention that the state’s interest increases with fetal development is logically untenable. Evaluating public interest requires deciding whose interests are included in the policy decision. If the conceptus were recognized as a person whose interests are included in the decision, abortion would be properly described as murder, and would therefore be unthinkable. But basing personhood upon any innate attribute of the fetus introduces a subjective value, whereas law should only be based on consequences to people.

It is a common mistake to base upon medical attributes a determination that the fetus becomes a person at any particular stage of its development, such as heartbeat, brainwaves or viability. This misconstrues as biology a decision that is an act of social valuation. Personhood begins when society invests the individual with the rights that it recognizes as universal and protected by law.

It is a basic tenet of ethics that obligation cannot be derived from statements of fact, i.e., you cannot conclude an ‘ought’ statement from ‘is’ statements. There is, therefore, no moment at which a fetus a priori must be designated as a person.

 

Social responsibility requires the availability of contraceptives and medically correct information about their use. Minnesota Atheists opposes so-called “abstinence only” sex education because it keeps from the sexually active students the information they need for responsible decisions.

There is a political strategy to undermine women’s reproductive rights with so-called “conscience clauses,” which permit health care providers to refuse medical treatments on the grounds that they conflict with the provider’s religious belief. Conscience clauses in some states address fetal research, such as on stem cells, and reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization. The most common type of conscience clause permits pharmacists and emergency room staff to refuse to provide contraception, including emergency contraception to rape victims. While proponents try to justify conscience clauses as necessary to protect religious liberty, their actual and intended effect is to authorize a religious privilege to permit health care providers to impose their religious beliefs on others. It is unethical for health care providers to create obstacles to a woman’s access to safe, effective and legal health care.

Public policy should ensure that medical care will be based upon the needs of the patient, and not be dictated by the religious beliefs and moral prejudices of caregivers. It should only be permissible to assert a right to refuse to fill a prescription when the patient is referred to a local pharmacy within a reasonable distance where the prescription will be filled without delay.

 

V. PUBLIC EDUCATION

The Constitution of the state of Minnesota draws clear guidelines for the separation of religion and government in Article 13, Section 2, by identifying the lines where government and religion must not intrude upon one another:  “In no case shall any public money or property be appropriated or used for the support of schools wherein the distinctive doctrines, creeds or tenets of any particular Christian or other religious sect are promulgated or taught,” and also Article 1, Section 16: “nor shall any money be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious societies or religious or theological seminaries.” Minnesota Atheists supports clear guidelines for separation of religion and government in all areas of public education (K- University) and asserts that it is better to err on the side of clear separation than to support a policy that violates these guidelines.

Opponents of the separation of church and state try to influence education policy in several areas:

1)         Religion in the curriculum

In the teaching of science, public schools need to adopt a curriculum that is approved by the scientific community. For example, evolution is a theory that has been accepted by established science. Religious stories of creation by supernatural means have no basis in accepted science and are matters of faith. Intelligent Design is a supernatural claim that cannot be verified empirically, makes no predictions, and is not falsifiable.  Furthermore, the Kitzmiller v. Dover case clearly established that Intelligent Design is not science and should not be taught in science class.

In the non-science curriculum, public education should not display any bias toward religion. Schools should teach about the influence of religion on culture and society, but without endorsing religion or religious ideology. In literature and history classes it is permissible to use religious texts as long as there is no promotion of religion over non-religion. In social studies classes the Declaration of Independence reference to “Creator-endowed rights” should be taught in the context of enlightenment ideas, including deism; and discussion should be encouraged on the source of human rights.

2)         Prayer

Prayer should follow established Federal guidelines for public schools (K – university). No public employee should lead or endorse prayer in the public schools. Prayer should be a private matter and not involved in any ceremony or activity promoted by a public school. Collective prayer is always coercive for elementary and high school students. A mandated moment of silence is only a thinly veiled collective prayer.

In the event that a public school should designate a room for prayer, meditation, or silence, the room should not be used for proselytizing. Anyone using the room should do so in silence when others of a different belief system are present. No symbols, books, or literature should be permanently displayed in the room. The room should not promote any religion over any other, nor religion over non-religion.

3)         Sex education in public school

Public schools should provide a sex education curriculum that is consistent with the research on what is effective and helpful to the health of students. An abstinence-only program that is taught with a religious motivation violates separation. Abstinence may be advocated only in conjunction with instruction in safe prophylactic practices.

4)         Religious activities in public schools

In 1990, in the case Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Access Act, which permitted public school students to form religious clubs that meet during non-instructional time if they permit secular clubs, was constitutional. The Court ruled in 2001 in the case Good News Club v. Milford Central School that if public schools rent out rooms to secular groups that they must rent them to religious groups on the same terms. In both cases, the court ruled that public schools may not discriminate against groups on the basis of religious content. Earlier courts came to contrary rulings by applying the Lemon Test, which Minnesota Atheists believes should be the governing precedent.

Accepting the decisions in the Westside and Milford cases, Minnesota Atheists believes that public schools must still take care to avoid violating the Establishment Clause. Rooms should be rented to religious groups at the same rate applied to secular groups, and strictly audited. No student or staff member may be required to participate in any religious activity. There may be no religious indoctrination during instructional time. Faculty may not promote or recruit for religious Equal Access Clubs or for outside religious groups meeting on school grounds, as this would give the appearance official endorsement. All school-sponsored activities must avoid in act and appearance promoting religion.

Minnesota Atheists opposes the practice of religious release time.

5)         Teaching comparative religion and texts

Comparative religion and religious texts (Bible, Koran, etc.) may be taught if presented in an unbiased manner with text material that clearly has no presentation bias. Advocacy, both religious and atheistic, must be strictly avoided, even by outside presenters. The public school must balance the bias that may appear in such classes by performing a close scrutiny of the materials used and of the instructor. Instruction in comparative religion done from a secular approach may have a positive effect on students. A survey of world religions should include atheism and other non theistic worldviews.

6)         Vouchers and Tax Credits

Vouchers and tax credits are methods of giving parents a choice in the schools their children attend. It makes no difference regarding state/church separation whether the government subsidy is in the form of a direct payment or a tax credit. Public funds should not be used to pay for an education at a religious school. Funding school programs that include religious activity makes it difficult if not impossible to separate the funding of religious from nonreligious instruction. It is therefore our policy that vouchers or tax credits should not be used in any payment to attend a religious school.

7)         Academic Freedom

Academic freedom should be a guideline for the presentation of material within the public school system (K – University). The teaching of any subject should protect the right of an educator to present their material without infringement. The guideline for academic freedom does not extend to the presentation of a religious bias in any curriculum presented in a public school. For example, Intelligent Design must not be taught as an alternative to evolution in a science classroom. ID might be presented along with other concepts of creation in a study of cultural differences, but not as science. The Bible may be taught as literature, but it should not be taught with any doctrinal bias, e.g., claiming that the virgin birth of Jesus or the Trinity are matters of fact and not faith. Academic freedom does not give a license to teach lies as truth, faith as fact, myth as science, or material not endorsed by sound educational practice. Education should teach critical thinking and not dogma.

8)         Charter Schools

Charter schools are publicly financed schools designed for a specific need or curriculum. Charter schools should be bound by the same rules ensuring separation of church and state as conventional public schools. Even if the students of a charter school are of a single religion, the school must not be used as a vehicle of religious instruction. No school should be housed on the same grounds as a house of worship, and when school employees have church offices, there must be a clear delineation of responsibilities.

 

VI. RELIGIOUSLY HOSTILE WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT

No one should need fear that he will lose his job, or be passed over for promotion, or given undesirable work assignments because his employer learns that he does not believe in supernatural gods. Discrimination in employment on the basis of religion was established by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer -

 

(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

 

(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

These protections apply equally to atheists for their lack of religion. In addition, the Minnesota Human Rights Act states:

Except when based on a bona fide occupational qualification, it is an unfair employment practice for an employer, because of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, membership or activity in a local commission, disability, sexual orientation, or age to:

 

(1) refuse to hire or to maintain a system of employment which unreasonably excludes a person seeking employment; or

 

(2) discharge an employee; or

 

(3) discriminate against a person with respect to hiring, tenure, compensation, terms, upgrading, conditions, facilities, or privileges of employment.

In addition, the courts have included a “hostile workplace environment” as a form of religious discrimination. This should protect workers from demands that the employee participate in religious practices, but also against harassment and unwelcomed proselytizing from co-workers, but no legislation adequately defines the “hostile workplace environment.” The most thorough attempt to do so was the publication by the Clinton Administration of “Guidelines On Religious Exercise And Religious Expression In The Federal Workplace.” Minnesota Atheists advocates that certain principles laid out in those guidelines be extended by state law into the private workplace.

The law against workplace discrimination should protect employees from being subjected to a hostile environment, or religious harassment, in the form of religiously discriminatory intimidation, or pervasive or severe religious ridicule or insult, whether by supervisors or fellow workers. A hostile environment may also be created by unwelcome and persistent proselytizing or religious criticism. Employees must refrain from such expression when a fellow employee asks that it stop or otherwise demonstrates that it is unwelcome.

Because supervisors have the power to hire, fire, or promote, employees may reasonably perceive their supervisors’ religious expression as coercive, even if it was not intended as such. This is most particularly the case with coercion of an employees’ participation in religious activities, and business activities at which prayer and proselytizing take place. Therefore, supervisors should be careful to ensure that their statements and actions are such that employees do not perceive any coercion of religious behavior, and should, where necessary, take appropriate steps to dispel such misperceptions.

Employer liability for a hostile environment will usually depend upon the frequency or repetitiveness of religious harassment, as well as its severity. The use of derogatory language in an assaultive manner will constitute statutory religious harassment if it is severe or invoked repeatedly. A single incident, if sufficiently abusive, might also constitute statutory harassment.

Liability should also depend on the extent to which the employer was aware of the harassment and the actions taken to address it. Failure to take action after receiving a complaint from an employee should demonstrate employer negligence.

 

VII. END OF LIFE ISSUES

Laws regulating end-of-life issues must be based on individual freedom and secular consequences. Religious ideas – such as the belief that humans have “souls” or that a god’s wishes must prevail – cannot be considered when making secular law. Such religious ideas may legitimately influence personal decisions, but they cannot be the basis for secular laws that must apply to everyone.

Minnesota Atheists supports the right of mentally competent, terminally ill people who are unable to find relief from their illness to have the voluntary options of self-termination, doctor-assisted suicide, or euthanasia. Consent of the patient in these end-of-life decisions shall be sufficient to shield doctors and others from legal prosecution in their efforts to fulfill the wishes of terminally ill patients.

Minnesota Atheists supports safeguards to ensure that the personal decision to end one's life is truly voluntary. We support efforts to make sure that the desire to self-terminate is not merely the result of depression that might be alleviated through medication or counseling, or of financial or emotional pressure being put on the person by relatives or others.

Minnesota Atheists encourages people to create living wills (advance care, end-of-life directives) to make their end-of-life desires clearly known to people they trust, who can, if necessary, act on their behalf if they become unable to communicate.

It is only by giving people the right to make such end-of-life decisions for themselves that we maintain human dignity.

 

VIII. DEALING WITH ISLAM

A core policy concern of Minnesota Atheists is to secure secular government from the superstitions, prejudices and dogma of religion. In the United States, most threats to the wall of separation between church and state come from Christianity, but worldwide, Islam is a far greater threat. It presents diverse problems for secular government that require specific analysis.

Terrorism

After the destruction of the World Trade Center, the U.S. government declared a vaguely defined “War on Terror.” We are at war not against a tactic of violence, but against a global network of paramilitary cells driven by hatred of Israel, the United States and modern culture, but inspired by a fundamentalist form of Islam.

Many countries had been victims of terrorist attacks by this network before September 11, 2001, so support for the United States was uniquely deep and broad. The response by the United States focused on military action, which is inadequate to eliminate a religious threat.

Religious insurrection can never be defeated by bullets, because there will always be more of the faithful ready to take up arms. Paramilitary groups can only exist when they have support in their communities. Victory in this war depends much less on the action of armies than the contest of beliefs and values. Armies can never win the clash of cultures, though they will have occasional limited roles. We cannot make enemies of 1.2 billion people, and expect to subjugate them militarily.

American policy must not view Muslims as a monolithic enemy out to destroy us. Treating them as such will only exacerbate the conflict. If we treat them all as Jihadist whom we must subjugate at the point of a gun, they will respond in kind.

Minnesota Atheists recognizes that many Muslims are peace-loving and tolerant. We urge them to join us in condemning those parts of their faith that advocate or condone violence, and to join us in condemning violence and human rights abuses committed in the name of their religion.

Muslim Nations

In nations where Islam is the established religion and law is dictated by Sharia we find severe human rights violations (particularly against women and gay people), legal suppression of non-believers (including criminalizing apostasy), and religious indoctrination that masquerades as education. This clearly demonstrates that secular government leads to a higher quality of life.

We have to strengthen the world’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Especially we have to confront the effort of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to have defamation of religion recognized as an international crime. Another concern in these countries is that public outbursts of anti-Western violence can be incited by government and by religious leaders.

Countries with Minority Muslim Populations

European nations with large populations of Muslim immigrants, who are not integrating smoothly with the culture of their new home, face an acute clash of cultures. A sense of victimization in the Muslim communities has led to violent riots over equal access to jobs and housing, but also in response to perceived insults to their religion. The response to these problems must be not only in police actions, but also in cultural outreach.

It is crucial that the West never compromise its secular values. We cannot abandon our commitment to equality and justice, condone religious discrimination, and not be recognized as hypocrites. Nor can we yield on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We must not succumb to the self-censorship that plagues Europe and silences legitimate criticism of Islam for fear of violent retaliation. When the Jyllands Posten published the cartoons of Mohammed, Minnesota Atheists published all of the cartoons, with a paragraph describing each one, in our newsletter, but every US daily refused for fear of ruffling religious sensitivities.

Free Exercise in the US

Minnesota Atheists supports a strict application of the First Amendment to religion, not only the Establishment Clause but also the Free Exercise Clause. We should not abandon this principled stand by enacting special laws directed against Muslims, such as an immigration exclusion. However, religion shall not be used as a privileged basis for excluding legal investigation into terrorist activity.

In the United States, although there are immigrant Muslims communities, terrorist cells have had few successes. Cultural conflict has been at a low level. Here in the Twin Cities, for example, we have had a few cases that have been spotlighted by the local press. Some Muslim Imams were ejected after boarding a flight because their Arabic prayers were considered suspicious; Somali cab drivers wanted to reject passengers at the airport who were carrying alcohol; clerks in grocery stores refused to handle pork products, and Muslim students requested special foot-washing facilities and prayer rooms at public colleges. Incidents like these must be handled on their individual merits, and Muslims should be treated with sensitivity, but exactly like everyone else – no better and no worse.

The most important objective has to be winning the battle of ideas and values. We must be sure that the opportunities and civil rights of liberal society are within the reach and expectation of Muslim immigrants. Our most potent weapon is the quality of life in secular society.

 

IX. BLASPHEMY LAWS

 Freedom of expression is an essential human right and a foundational principle of a free society, ensured in international law by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

In the United States the Freedom of Expression is protected by the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In many nations, however, there are laws forbidding defamation of the established religion. These are blasphemy laws, which inherently conflict with freedom of expression. These laws have been variously justified by:

  1. a claim by religious institutions of a right to protection from offense,
  2. by the state’s interest in suppressing incitement to religious hatred, and
  3. by the state’s interest in preserving peace and public order.

Since offense is completely subjective, it is not an adequate legal ground for restricting freedom of expression. Doing so reduces a civil right to a mockery, and confines discussion of religion to the perspective supported by the state. It privileges government supported religious views above all others, and shields them from critical analysis.

Neither is suppressing religious hatred a sufficient justification for blasphemy laws. The application of these laws has been so broad that they are no different in practice from laws based on religious offense. The state has a responsibility to maintain peace and the safety of all citizens while respecting their human rights. This requires the state to protect an open marketplace of ideas.

Criticism of Islam in the West has been met with violent mob attacks in nations with a predominantly Muslim population. This was the case, for example, with the “Cartoon Intifada.” This has led to calls for legal action against those who created the offense, assigning to them the responsibility for the violence, rather than the people who actually committed the violence. Such a course of action rewards criminal violence and encourages its repetition. It is the responsibility of every nation to find the perpetrators of violence within their borders and to prosecute them. The nations that have suffered attacks upon their citizens, government offices and business interests should insist upon it.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference has made repeated attempts to internationalize laws to make blasphemy a crime with resolutions in the United Nations Human Rights Council and in the General Assembly. Minnesota Atheists commends the International Humanist Ethical Union (IHEU), a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) accredited by the United Nations, for its opposition to these resolutions.

Minnesota Atheists concurs with the conclusion of the policy on freedom of expression issued by the Atheist Alliance International.

If a society is to value and equally respect all its citizens, it must unequivocally stand against those who seek to limit offence through violence, intimidation or legislation. No ideology, religious or otherwise, should be permitted to dictate that certain views are exempt from scrutiny, critical analysis, comment, satire or mockery. A view that cannot withstand such examination is not credible and should be re-considered by the holder, not protected by laws or defended with violence or intimidation.

 

Any offense caused by views being challenged, criticized or even mocked – whether a person is religious or not – is the negligible, but vital, price of human freedom.

 

RevisionDateRapporteurCommitteeChanges

Initial Release

6/18/2008

George Kane

George Kane

August Berkshire

Steve Petersen

Cynthia Egli

Grant Steves

Shirley Moll

Initial Release

Revision A

8/20/2008

George Kane

George Kane

August Berkshire

Steve Petersen

Cynthia Egli

Grant Steves

Shirley Moll

In the Gay Rights Policy on Page 5, in the section entitled "The Equal Right to Civil Marriage" Delete the first sentence reading "In the United States a currently contentious application of the principle of equal rights to GLBT citizens is marriage." Replace it with "A well known example in which GLBT people are denied equal rights is in marriage." Reformatted the Revision Control Table.

Rev B

10/21/2009

George Kane

George Kane

Bjorn Watland

August Berkshire

Crystal Dervetski

In the Prologue, modified the first sentence to quote the Establishment Clause. Split the first paragraph. In the penultimate paragraph, changed the phrase "such as marriage" to read "such as civil marriage and non-discrimination in employment."

In the section "Government Entanglement with Religion: Display of religious symbols on public property," deleted the statement "Our First Amendment Committee will recommend actions to the Board based on the individual merits of each case it comes upon."

In the section "Taxation of Churches and other nonprofit Corporations," under "Income," changed the phrase "IRS tax exempt status provides an exemption" to read "IRS tax exempt status provides churches an exemption."

Changed the Section Title "Gay Rights" to "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) Rights." In the first paragraph following, changed "This support is based on three rules of law" to read "This support is based on two rules of law." In the first list point, inserted "Fourteenth Amendment to the" before "U.S. Constitution." At the end of the Equal Protection Clause section, added the statement "We are particularly concerned with countering religious groups that wish to limit equal protection under the law due to their religious dogma." Changed what had been two principles, "Secular laws must have a secular basis" and "Religious tenets for which the only basis is belief in the supernatural should not become civil law. To turn such religious tenets into civil law is to create a theocracy" into two list items under the principle, "The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," Deleted the entire section "The Equal Right to Civil Marriage," except for the sentence "Minnesota Atheists takes no position on what the state chooses to call its civil marriage contracts (e.g. "marriage," "civil union," "domestic partnership," etc.) so long as the same term is used equally for both straight and gay people."

In the section on Reproductive Rights, changed "Their tactics to end abortion rights include excessive state and local regulation, federal legislation...." to "Their tactics to end abortion rights include local, state, and federal legislation and excessive regulation...." Moved the segment from "A common religious claim" through "only a potential person" from the 3rd paragraph to stand alone as the 2nd paragraph. To the next paragraph, added the concluding sentence "But basing personhood upon any innate attribute of the fetus introduces a subjective value, whereas law should only be based on consequences to people." To what remains of the next paragraph, delete the word 'however.' Change 'such as viability' to read 'such at heartbeat, brainwaves or viability.' In the next paragraph, delete the concluding sentences "Rather, as with all public policy questions, the decision of when the conceptus becomes a person must be decided by whether that policy produces net benefit for society. We can only justify a policy that abortion is illegal, for example, after the onset of the third trimester, by showing that society benefits from it." In the next paragraph, change "when that decision is made by the woman or couple" to read "when the decision to abort is made by the woman.

Initial Release of the sections on Public Education and End-of-Life laws. Under the Heading "Government Entanglement with Religion," initial release of new sections on Threats to Secular Government and Religious Law.

Rev C

8/18/2010

George Kane

George Kane

August Berkshire

Steve Petersen

Shirley Moll

In the section "Government Entanglement with Religion/Government funding of church-based programs", change "Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives" to "Council of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships"

Delete the sections "Threats to Secular Government" and "Religious Law"

In the section "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) Rights/The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," change "Secular laws must have a secular basis." to "Civil laws must have a secular basis."

Correct the first sentence of Public Education by inserting the preposition 'in' before 'Article 13, Section 2.'

Initial release of the sections "Dealing with Islam" and "Religious Hostility in the Workplace."

Rev D

6/15/2011

George Kane

George Kane

August Berkshire

Shirley Moll

To the section "Government Entanglement With Religion," added a new concluding paragraph on Standing.

Added a new section on Blue Laws.

In the section on "Public Education," revised the paragraph on Vouchers so that it also addresses tax credits.

Rev E

9/19/2012

George Kane

George Kane

August Berkshire

Added a new section on Religious Privilege.

Rev F

9/18/2013

Heather Hegi

Heather Hegi

George Kane

August Berkshire

Phil Cunliffe

Modified prominent sections to have roman numerals and converted text to all caps.

Moved the sections on “Blue Laws” and on “Taxation of Churches and other nonprofit Corporations” to be in section I. Government Entanglement with Religion.

Added text in the Prologue: “Free exercise clause violations will usually also violate the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.” Also added a paragraph: “We realize there are many worthy causes we could support that have no connection to state/church separation or religious intrusion into our daily lives. While we applaud those who strive to make this a better secular world, and while Minnesota Atheists may sponsor or participate in such events ourselves (e.g. charitable activities that help the poor), our public policies are limited to issues of state/church separation.”

Added subsection in section I. Government Entanglement with Religion: Religious Freedom in the Military [see document for full text].

Modified text in section IV. Reproductive Rights, the first sentence was changed from saying “legal attacks by conservative Christians”, to saying “legal attacks by religious conservatives.”

Removed text in section IV. Reproductive Rights, the paragraph “American society is best served when the decision to abort is made by the woman in consideration of specific social and material circumstances. In many cases, the odds of a successful parenting outcome can be greatly improved by postponing childbirth for a few years. The state usurping reproductive decisions has the pernicious result of precluding the possibility of the woman or couple exercising social responsibility.” Additionally removed the word “also” from the following paragraph. This paragraph was determined to be redundant.

Added text in section IV. Reproductive Rights, the paragraphs “There is a political strategy to undermine women’s reproductive rights with so-called “conscience clauses,” which permit health care providers to refuse medical treatments on the grounds that they conflict with the provider’s religious belief. Conscience clauses in some states address fetal research, such as on stem cells, and reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization. The most common type of conscience clause permits pharmacists and emergency room staff to refuse to provide contraception, including emergency contraception to rape victims. While proponents try to justify conscience clauses as necessary to protect religious liberty, their actual and intended effect is to authorize a religious privilege to permit health care providers to impose their religious beliefs on others. It is unethical for health care providers to create obstacles to a woman’s access to safe, effective and legal health care.” ¶“Public policy should ensure that medical care will be based upon the needs of the patient, and not be dictated by the religious beliefs and moral prejudices of caregivers. It should only be permissible to assert a right to refuse to fill a prescription when the patient is referred to a local pharmacy within a reasonable distance where the prescription will be filled without delay.”

Modified text in section V. Public Education, the first point was changed from “Science in the classroom” to “Religion in the curriculum”.

Added text in section V. Public Education under the first point, “In social studies classes the Declaration of Independence reference to “Creator-endowed rights” should be taught in the context of enlightenment ideas, including deism; and discussion should be encouraged on the source of human rights.”

Modified text in section VIII. Dealing with Islam, under the section on Terrorism, in the fourth paragraph, the word “Jihadis” was changed to “Jihadist” to please Microsoft Word.

Modified text in section VIII. Dealing with Islam, under the section on Free Exercise in the US, “On the other hand, police investigation of terrorists should devote particular attention to Muslim communities, as this is where terrorist cells form and flourish. Restrictions on police “profiling” should not impede investigations that are necessary for public safety.” was changed to say “However, religion shall not be used as a privileged basis for excluding legal investigation into terrorist activity.”

Added New Section, section IX. Blasphemy Laws [see document for full text].

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