President Barack Obama signed on Friday a law amending the international religious freedom act to extend protections against persecution to people with non-religious beliefs. The religious freedom act, which originally provided protection from persecution to people holding religious beliefs, now provides protection against persecution to people with non-religious beliefs, such as agnosticism, atheism, and humanism.
The new legislation, H.R. 1150, signed by the president on December 16, 2016, amends the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) to include protections for people with non-theistic beliefs and worldviews. It also protects individual and group rights not to profess or practice any religion at all.
The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) had established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a watchdog that monitors and reports on violations of religious freedom in countries around the world, such as Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Vietnam, where minority religious groups, such as Christians, Jews and Baha’is, have faced persecution in recent years, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.
“This bill amends the IRFA to state that the freedom of thought and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well…”
The new legislation, named after a former GOP Congressman from Virginia, who introduced the original version in 1997, was passed with bipartisan support. It states explicitly, for the first time, that the “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” applies to religious as well as to non-religious people.
The bill further condemns “the specific targeting of non-theists, humanists, and atheists because of their beliefs” and declares it to be a form of religious persecution.
Legal scholars are hailing the new legislation as a milestone because, for the first time, the international religious freedom act explicitly mentions non-religious people, such as atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and secularists, as being among the various classes of citizens protected under the act.
“The new law has some really interesting language in it,” Caroline Mala Corbin, law professor at the University of Miami, said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “It takes an expansive view of religious liberty, saying freedom of religion is not just about the right to practice religion. It is also about the right to have your own views about religion including being agnostic and atheistic.”
“President Obama was the first president to explicitly acknowledge nonbelievers in his inaugural address, so this seems to fit into his legacy vis-a-vis nonbelievers,” Corbin continued, but added that “What the next administration is going to do with this law and nonbelievers is a completely different question.”
Maggie Ardiente, communications director for the American Humanist Association (AHA), said that the AHA and other advocate organizations spent four years lobbying Congress to amend the IRFA to extend protections to non-religious people and groups, according to Snopes. Ardiente said that lobbyists met with members of the State Department to raise awareness on the persecution of non-religious people in countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
According to the AHA, the persecution of non-religious minorities has become a serious global issue that deserves attention. Atheists and secularists have suffered imprisonment, lashings, executions, and lynching in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh. Saudi Arabia recently sentenced a man to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes for professing atheism on social media.
“The persecution of humanist and atheist writers has become an area of increasing concern especially after the string of murders of secular bloggers in Bangladesh.”
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the AHA, described the new legislation as “a significant step toward full acceptance and inclusion for non-religious individuals.”
“The American Humanist Association is proud to see this historic legislation signed into law and looks forward to working with the US Department of State to ensure religious liberty for non-theists and religious minorities abroad,” Speckhardt added.
Matthew Bulger, legislative director of the AHA, described it as a “historic piece of legislation that for the first time recognizes non-theists.”
Religious people and groups have also lauded the law.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, described it as “a vital step toward protecting conscience freedom for millions of the world’s most vulnerable, most oppressed people,” The Salt Lake Tribune reports.
“Religious freedom for all people, theists and non-theists, is an American value we must protect.”
The new version of the law strengthens the old law in various other ways. It empowers the president to sanction individuals who violate other people’s right of freedom of conscience and religion. It directs the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to report on relevant issues to the U.S. secretary of state. It also recommends training of U.S. Foreign Service officials in the “strategic value of international religious freedom.”
Corbin pointed out that the new language of the law would influence how U.S. courts handle cases involving atheists. Although all Americans are protected by the First Amendment, “there has always been controversy about the degree to which they (atheists) should be protected. This law makes clear they are to be protected to the same extent as others,” she said.
[Featured Image by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images]