By George Kane
I hate to portray atheists as victims. After all, religions are so good at wallowing in self-pity that we can never hope to match them. Christians always don the mantle of victimhood whenever they are forbidden to use sectarian prayers as part of public meetings, or to teach creationism in public schools. Muslims scream that they are the victims of bigotry if an ink drawing of Mohammed is published in a newspaper – and they kill people for it.
I also despise victimhood because it is unseemly and personally corrosive. Nevertheless, there are times when we must call attention to anti-atheist bigotry, to assert legal rights where applicable and to shine a light in the faces of the bigots. Two recent examples deserve to be well known.
The Center for Inquiry’s Michigan chapter booked Richard Dawkins for a speech at The Wyndgate Country Club in Rochester Hills Michigan, near Detroit. When the owner of the club saw Dawkins interviewed by Bill O’Reilly on October 5, and realized that Dawkins is an atheist, he cancelled the event. The Wyndgate’s representative explained that the owner did not wish to associate with individuals such as Dawkins, or his philosophy.
The sold-out event had to be moved to a different venue, as the owner rejected pleas to reconsider. The CFI-Michigan has decided to sue the Wyndgate Country Club for damages, arguing that even private organizations are constrained by laws against discrimination in public accommodations. Their legal claim is based on the clear precedent that laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion also protect atheists. Rights based on freedom of religion must also be granted to those who are not religious.
The owner is free to refuse a speaker whose political or economic ideology he dislikes, but he may not discriminate based upon the speaker’s views on religion. He will therefore claim, of course, that his decision was not based on Richard Dawkins’ opinions about religion. This claim will not inoculate him against a violation of Dawkins’ religious rights, however, as its veracity must be determined by the court. In this case, it is a transparent pretext.
The other case of discrimination does not have the same legal objections, but is even more shocking because it involves turning down a large donation because it came from an atheist organization. The Todd Stiefel Freethought Foundation offered a $250,000 matching grant to the American Cancer Society to sponsor a national team in their Relay for Life. The intent of the grant was to encourage atheists groups to donate to this worthwhile charity.
According to accounts reported on AlterNet.org and later examined by P.Z. Myers in his Pharyngula blog, the donation was at first enthusiastically welcomed. The American Cancer Society approved the application, which was potentially worth a half million dollars to them. They even provided an intern to manage the program. Then, at some point, the American Cancer Society began refusing to return calls from Todd Stiefel.
When they finally got back to him, they told him that they had decided to restrict team sponsorship in the Relay for Life to corporations, and suggested that Stiefel’s foundation simply donate the money instead, without further involvement. This seemed inconsistent with them welcoming, for example, national team sponsorship by the Girl Scouts. Stiefel suggested funding the matching grant program through the Foundation Beyond Belief, which is a charitable 501(c)3 corporation, but this was rejected. He then suggested that the Foundation Beyond Belief merely be listed as a national sponsor, a list that includes several charitable non-profit corporations, but that proposal too was rejected.
When AlterNet asked the American Cancer Society why they refused the Foundation Beyond Belief as a National Team Partner in the Relay for Life program, they replied that “We have repeatedly tried to come to an agreement regarding the offer but have been unable to do so. The public debate that has ensued, we believe, undermines the shared passion both organizations have for our mission of saving lives from cancer.” This only evades the question. Is there any explanation possible other than that the grant was rejected because it came from atheists?