Atheist Discrimination Then and Now

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I think it’s safe to say that all forms of discrimination persist, regardless of how overt and observable they might be. The language changes, the tactics change, but every time someone says “I have black friends” or “I support civil unions,” it’s a clue that things have not yet reached an ideal. We have extreme folks like Westboro Baptist Church or the KKK that remind us what kind of attitudes persist. Another easy way is to look back very recently in time and see what people were saying just a few decades ago and measure that against what visible progress there has been.

In terms of how people feel about atheists, there hasn’t been much progress. That movement is five years young and has a long way to go. (It hasn’t been a full year since “Godless” was used as a political epithet in a national election.) So, for those of you who aren’t really sure what prejudice against atheism or maintenance of religious privilege look like, let’s take a look at this fun little article from the December 7, 1970 issue of Time Magazine.

After six years of childless marriage, John and Cynthia Burke of Newark decided to adopt a baby boy through a state agency. Since the Burkes were young, scandal-free and solvent, they had no trouble with the New Jersey Bureau of Children’s Services—until investigators came to the line on the application that asked for the couple’s religious affiliation.

John Burke, an atheist, and his wife, a pantheist, had left the line blank. As a result, the bureau denied the Burkes’ application. After the couple began court action, however, the bureau changed its regulations, and the couple was able to adopt a baby boy from the Children’s Aid and Adoption Society in East Orange.

So, it seems the problem was solved at the time. There was a bad policy in place and it was corrected and the Burkes were able to adopt a loving child. But, let’s see what happened next:

Last year the Burkes presented their adopted son, David, now 3 1/2, with a baby sister, Eleanor Katherine, now 17 months, whom they acquired from the same East Orange agency. Since the agency endorsed the adoption, the required final approval by a judge was expected to be pro forma. Instead, Superior Court Judge William Camarata raised the religious issue.

Inestimable Privilege. In an extraordinary decision, Judge Camarata denied the Burkes’ right to the child because of their lack of belief in a Supreme Being. Despite the Burkes’ “high moral and ethical standards,” he said, the New Jersey state constitution declares that “no person shall be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshiping Almighty God in a manner agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience.” Despite Eleanor Katherine’s tender years, he continued, “the child should have the freedom to worship as she sees fit, and not be influenced by prospective parents who do not believe in a Supreme Being.”

In other words, the Judge interpreted the New Jersey State Constitution to say that every child should be taught to believe in God.

Now, clearly, Judge Camarata did not read the full statement of the New Jersey Constitution:

No person shall be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshipping Almighty God in a manner agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; nor under any pretense whatever be compelled to attend any place of worship contrary to his faith and judgment

The way that I would read that is very different. Not only should a child not be forced to any place of worship, but it is also illegal to do so. “Contrary to his [sic] faith and judgment” seems to raise the issue of consent. If a minor is not of the age to make decisions for hirself, then ze does not have the “faith and judgment” to make such decisions and should not be compelled.

That’s kind of an interesting twist, don’t you think?

Now, the ruling was reversed (hat tip: Hemant Mehta), and the family lived presumably happily ever after. But think about what was happening at this time. It wasn’t until 1969 that a professed nonbeliever could adopt. Two years later a judge was still decrying that a child needed to be raised a believer. And just this month, you can still see how that fear and antipathy persist.

It was only 14 years later that I was born in New Jersey and put up for adoption. And interestingly enough, what I recently learned is that my birth mother wanted the adopting parents to raise me as a believer. It wasn’t “official,” but if my parents had not agreed, they would not have gotten me. The consequence was that I was baptized Catholic and then later my parents decided to be open and give me choice. But I wonder how differently my life would have turned out if my birth mother could have legally required that I believe in God. It’s such a disturbing thought when you realize how intellectually stifling it is.

In 2009, these kinds of privileged religion standards still play out. Sometimes it’s a case of custody. Sometimes it’s a matter of  parents who won’t let their kids get the proper healthcare they require because it’s against their religious beliefs. Sometimes it’s political campaign smears or editorial vitriol.

The need to have tough conversations about religion is high, and I hope with some visibility, we can work to resist this discrimination, paranoia, and hatred that continues to permeate our society.

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