In 2015, nearly 3 percent of Americans identified as atheists, 4 percent as agnostics and 23 percent as unaffiliated with any religion. And that number is consistently on the rise. In the past 10 years, the growth in nonreligious Americans has outpaced the number of Catholics, mainline Protestants and non-Christians. But even as the number of nonreligious Americans continues to increase, they still lack widespread representation in Congress. There’s currently only one openly nontheistic member of Congress: U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.).
But there’s some good news for the representation of atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nontheists in Congress: A few weeks ago, U.S. Reps. Huffman, Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), and Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) launched the Congressional Freethought Caucus. They were joined a few days later by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). A caucus is a group of lawmakers who get together to champion a common issue – in this case, promoting “sound public policy based on reason, science, and moral values” rather than religion, protecting “the secular character of our government by adhering to … the separation of church and state” and opposing “discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons.”
These goals are more timely than ever. Backed by leaders in Congress, the Trump administration and conservatives in Congress have continually introduced policies that undermine the separation of religion and government, distort the meaning of religious freedom and allow religion to be used as an excuse to discriminate. There’s too much happening to list it all, but here are just a few examples from the past few weeks: Trump signed an executive order that strips religious liberty protections for individuals, particularly nonreligious people, who use government funded-social services; Congress and the president passed resolutions endorsing prayer, ignoring the separation of church and state, on the National Day of Prayer; congressional Republicans are pushing for the inclusion of private school vouchers that will funnel public money to private, religious schools in a bill to fund our military; and Speaker Paul Ryan fired, and then re-hired, the congressional chaplain, highlighting why Congress should not endorse one religious leader over all others.
Nonreligious Americans may be among the most harmed by this Congress’ and administration’s policies, and that is why the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which was publicly announced during a recent meeting of the Secular Coalition for America, is a welcome addition to Capitol Hill. For example, under a Trump administration proposed rule, a nonreligious American seeking treatment for a substance-abuse disorder from a federally funded program could be denied the opportunity to seek an alternative provider if he is sent to a Christian program. Through private school vouchers, atheists may see their tax dollars go to religious schools that they do not support. And under a Trump administration guidance, a faith-based organization that receives taxpayer money could deny nonreligious Americans access to government-funded services or refuse to hire them for government jobs because they are the “wrong religion.”
The introduction of the Congressional Freethought Caucus is a great step forward to amplify the voices of nonreligious Americans who are fighting back against these attacks. As always, Americans United will be standing strong in our support for the religious freedom of nontheists to pursue no faith at all.
We’re looking forward to working closely with the members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus to ensure that all Americans, believers and nonbelievers alike, are treated fairly and equally. For more information about our work protecting the rights of nontheists, sign up for our emails here.
(Pictured: Members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee, Jerry McNerney, Pramila Jayapal, Jamie Raskin and Jared Huffman, from left.)