Last week a federal court in North Carolina ruled in favor of a prison inmate who wanted to form a group and meet with fellow prisoners who are, like him, Humanists.
Kwame Teague wasn’t asking for anything that isn’t already granted to theistic inmates at Warren Correctional Institution. Inmates who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim and members of other theistic faiths regularly meet at the prison to worship and share fellowship. For some reason, North Carolina prison officials refused to grant Teague the same right for his non-theistic belief system.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ruled in Teague’s favor, ordering that corrections officials in North Carolina stop treating Humanist inmates differently than theistic ones.
The case, brought on Teague’s behalf by the American Humanist Association (AHA), is similar to a lawsuit in Nevada, also sponsored by the AHA, representing a Humanist inmate who has been denied the right to meet with other Humanists, even though several theistic groups meet at Lovelock Correctional Center. Americans United and the Freedom From Religion Foundation recently filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief in that case arguing that inmate Benjamin Espinosa’s non-theistic beliefs deserve the same treatment as theistic ones.
The issue of equal treatment by government for non-theism is playing out in other contexts, not just prisons. In some communities where government officials have allowed theistic groups to display symbols and signs in public spaces, non-theistic organizations have had to sue to win the same right of access. Municipal and state governments that open meetings with theistic invocations are being sued by groups like Americans United so that right is extended to non-theistic organizations that want to offer secular invocations. The U.S. Navy just rejected certifying the first Humanist chaplain, a short-sighted move that’s more than a little blow to true tolerance in the military.
Different Humanists, atheists and freethinkers have a variety of opinions on whether and in what context the term “religion” can be used in reference to their belief systems. But for legal purposes, non-theistic belief systems are often considered to be equivalent to theistic religious beliefs. This means that in those cases where government grants certain rights of access to public spaces or gives benefits to theistic religious groups, it must also offer them to non-theistic groups.
This shouldn’t be controversial. After all, it’s a concept that’s firmly ingrained in the religious-freedom provisions of the First Amendment, which protects the right to disbelieve as well as believe.
A theory of religious freedom that did not include the right to be skeptical of or reject all faiths would be of little use. Early advocates of church-state separation knew this. John Leland, a colonial-era Baptist cleric and powerful advocate for freedom of conscience, observed in 1791, “Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse, or loss of property, from his religious opinions.”
Leland may have been inspired by his friend and ally Thomas Jefferson, who 10 years earlier wrote, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Some government officials may try to resist acknowledging the rights of non-theists, but they’re fighting a losing battle. A growing number of Americans identify as “nones” – that is, when asked to provide their religious affiliation, they reply that they are atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular.” More and more Americans also call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Others borrow and blend from several traditions, creating a personalized theological brew.
And, yes, some Americans choose to opt out of religion entirely.
Rather than resist these trends, corrections officials and others who work for our government should follow another course: Respect the Constitution by expanding the circle of acceptance and extending to non-theists the rights and privileges that theistic believers often take for granted.