Atheists are now protected from discrimination in Madison, Wisconsin, after the city’s common council unanimously voted Tuesday to make discrimination against atheism or others who do not believe in God illegal, according to local TV station Channel 3000. Madison reportedly is the first city in the United States to pass such an ordinance.
"This is important because I believe it is only fair that if we protect religion, in all its varieties, we should also protect nonreligion from discrimination,” Madison Common Council District 18 Alderwoman Anita Weier, the ordinance's sponsor, said to Channel 3000.
After hearing stories from five atheists speaking in favor of the proposal and a statement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the city common council unanimously amended its equal opportunity ordinance to include protections for atheists.
“Aside from the practical applications, this amendment has great symbolic meaning,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, according to a transcript posted by the organization. "It's my hope that the adoption of this historic ordinance will seed other such ordinances to protect rights — nonreligious rights — around the country. This would be something the Madison common council could be very proud of.”
The ordinance calls for equal opportunities in employment, housing and public accommodations. The council’s amendment adds the phrase “religion or atheism” to a list of protected classes that includes: sex, race, color, national origin or ancestry, citizenship status, age, handicaps/disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and political beliefs, among many others.
"Having it on the books, where we're legally a protected class, that'll make things much easier for atheists," UW graduate student and former Atheists Humanists and Agnostics President Chris Calvey said in a video posted by Channel 3000. "And we'll be able to be confident that at least if we're honest about what we actually believe, then we have the law backing us up so we can't legally be discriminated against."
The atheist speakers, including Calvey, told the Madison council stories of housing, employment, volunteer, community and parental custody discrimination, according to Channel 3000. No one spoke against the proposal.
Seven states—Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas—still have laws prohibiting atheists from holding office, although the laws are largely unenforceable.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation called for similar actions and legislation across the country. “We encourage free-thought activists — including the increasing number of local public officials who are atheists or agnostics — to work to introduce and replicate this protection at their city, county or even state levels,” Gaylor said, according to a press release on the organization’s site.