UPDATE: Dawkins Event Banned – CFI to Pursue Legal Remedies

October 14, 2011

… BREAKING: Bill O’Reilly to respond to “Wyndgate-Gate” on Friday, October 14, O’Reilly Factor …

… REVISION 10/14/11-2:02PM: O’Reilly response now scheduled for Monday, October 17 …

As reported on Monday, October 10, a CFI–Michigan event featuring Richard Dawkins was abruptly cancelled after the owner of the venue saw an interview with Dawkins on The O’Reilly Factor in which Dawkins discussed his new book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.

Since that message was released, dozens of news outlets have reported the story and CFI has received numerous letters of support and shared outrage.  (Thank you!)  We have also received many inquiries essentially asking, “What are you going to do about this?” Our reply: CFI will be pursuing legal action against The Wyndgate Country Club.

CFI is experienced in legal advocacy and is well-equipped to challenge this act of discrimination by The Wyndgate.  As more and more people publicly identify as atheists (as Richard Dawkins has bravely done), we anticipate even more discriminatory acts to arise, so it is important for everyone to understand how civil rights laws may apply to nonbelievers. 

NOTE: We say “laws” because there are not only various federal laws but also state laws, some of which are broader in scope than federal law.  In the present situation, the relevant statutes are the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Generally—and specifically in this instance—the following rules apply:

  • Privately-owned companies are not exempt from laws against discrimination.  If a privately-owned Michigan business offers services to the public (the legal term is “public accommodation,”) they must abide by both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and cannot discriminate against people based on religion.
  • Prohibitions of discrimination based on religion protect atheists.  Some people think that because atheism is not a religion, atheists do not belong in the “religion class” protected by civil rights laws.  Legal precedent demonstrates, however, that rights based on “freedom of religion” are also granted to those who are not religious.
  • The protections of the civil rights laws only apply to specific “classes” of people.  For example, Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations) prohibits discrimination against people based on their race, color, religion, or national origin.  It does not protect people based on, for example, their political opinions, economic ideologies, or their taste in art.  In other words, the owner of a private company could refuse to host a Nazi-sympathizer or a member of the Tea Party, an Al Gore, a Robert Reich, or a Christo.
  • Whether a discriminatory act occurred is a question that is determined through the legal process.  Rare is the company that admits to discrimination.  Companies often will offer explanations, arguing they based their decision on something other than a person’s protected group status.  For example, they may claim a person was turned away not because of religious beliefs, but because the company was concerned about “disruption.”  The relevant court or agency will determine whether the company’s explanation is a pretext for discrimination.

What is indisputable is that discrimination based on religion is both intolerable and illegal.  In other words, as CFI–Michigan executive director, Jeff Seaver, has pointed out, “discrimination based on a person’s religion—or lack thereof—is legally equivalent to discriminating against a person because of his or her race.”

“This action by The Wyndgate illustrates the kind of bias and bigotry that nonbelievers encounter all the time.  It’s exactly why organizations like CFI and the Richard Dawkins Foundation are needed: to help end the stigma attached to being a nonbeliever.”

Stay tuned for further developments, and tune in to watch
The O’Reilly Factor Friday night.

# # #

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at centerforinquiry.org.