Some Observations on the Seventh Circuit’s Decision

July 17, 2014

As many of you know by now, the Center for Inquiry—actually, scratch that—all nonreligious Americans achieved a significant victory in federal appeals court on Monday. I want to discuss briefly some of the implications of that decision.

The immediate issue on which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled is whether Indiana can maintain a state law that provides that representatives of (most) religious bodies, including Satanists, have the authority to solemnize marriages, while refusing that privilege to certified secular celebrants. The court unanimously ruled that the Indiana law is unconstitutional, both as a violation of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

What was striking about the court’s opinion was its explicit recognition that the nonreligious—atheists, agnostics, humanists—are part of the fabric of American society, and that they don’t have to pretend to be religious to take part in the legal, social, and civic life of this country. Indiana’s attorneys had tried to pooh-pooh the importance of CFI’s claim by essentially saying, “What’s the big deal? CFI celebrants can perform weddings, as long as they’re willing to call themselves religious. Some humanists do that. Indiana doesn’t care.”

The court squarely rejected this invitation to hypocrisy, stating that, “It is irrational to allow humanists to solemnize marriages if, and only if, they falsely declare that they are a ‘religion.’” The court noted that CFI has adamantly refused to accept classification as a religious organization and its supporters do not characterize themselves as religious. As the court observed, CFI celebrants “are unwilling to pretend to be something they are not, or pretend to believe something they do not.”

For far too long, too many atheists and other nonreligious in the U.S. have hemmed and hawed about their rejection of religion, using euphemisms such as “religious, but not theistic,” “not very religious,” or “spiritual.” Sadly, there sometimes have been good practical reasons for dissembling, given the ostracism faced by some who have come out expressly as atheists. But times are changing, as indicated by the court’s opinion. It’s time to stop pretending we’re something we’re not. We need to be open and candid about our beliefs. The more of us who openly and unashamedly declare ourselves nonreligious, the more quickly social acceptance will come. Indiana has learned it can’t shame or intimidate atheists into hypocrisy. The rest of the U.S. can learn the same lesson.

NOTE: please don’t interpret this post as a veiled attack on those humanists who sincerely describe themselves as “religious.” I firmly believe that’s a misuse of the term “religious,” which to me has as necessary conditions: belief in something transcendent (usually, but not necessarily, a deity); adherence to certain doctrines; and deference to certain authorities (persons or writings) as interpreters of those doctrines. And no humanist I know meets those conditions. But I recognize there is no universally recognized definition of religion.

That said, for those of us who reject gods, spirits, and dogma and acknowledge we are not religious—well, it’s time for some celebration, and for a renewed commitment to working toward a secular society, where someone’s beliefs regarding religion have no effect whatsoever on their equal standing before the law or in civic life.