Obama signs bill committing U.S. to protecting atheists in foreign lands

Given the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I would have thought that atheists were protected under U.S. law, at least as far as being able to express their beliefs publicly. Well, they are, but Obama has made the U.S. commitment to international protection of atheists explicit by just now signing H.R. 1150 into law: The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (see bill here).  As  PoliticalDig reports,

The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act is an amendment to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The amendment’s official stated purpose is:

“To amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to improve the ability of the United States to advance religious freedom globally through enhanced diplomacy, training, counterterrorism, and foreign assistance efforts, and through stronger and more flexible political responses to religious freedom violations and violent extremism worldwide.”

The newly amended law states, “The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion.” The law further condemns any “policy or practice of routinely denying applications for visas for religious workers in a country can be indicative of a poor state of religious freedom in that country.” This goes against the belief of President-elect Donald Trump and his plan to persecute people because of their religious beliefs by denying them access to the U.S.

And here’s the operative part of the bill:

screen-shot-2016-12-22-at-10-08-52-am

In case you can’t read that, it says “the freedom of thought and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion.

Suprisingly, the bill was passed with bipartisan support—an anomaly in a country that’s said to be “Christian” and in which atheists are reviled as if they were lepers. But now the U.S. is committed to defending the rights not just of religionists everywhere in the world, but also thoseof nonbelievers. As Vocativ notes:

The bill focuses only on atheists living outside of the country. It’s a strengthening of a 1998 religions freedom law, which established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, dedicated to protecting religious liberty around the world. For 18 years, the office has investigated abuse of Christians, Jews and religious minorities in other countries, but it has never tracked instances of persecution against atheists. Now, the law will also include those who don’t subscribe to a recognized religion. “The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs and the right not to profess or practice any religion,” the act now states.

The additions also denounce “the specific targeting of non-theists, humanists, and atheists because of their beliefs” as well as attempts to “forcibly [compel] non-believers or non-theists to recant their beliefs or to convert.” [JAC: I can’t find this language in the bill. Am I missing something?]

Granted, this act does not give additional protection to atheists in America, but non-theistic advocacy groups are hailing the move as a historic step. After all, it’s one of the rare American recognitions that atheists have rights too.

Obama is doing a whole lot of good stuff in the waning days of his term, and this is one of them. What was the impetus? Perhaps the murder of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, or perhaps just a general protection of nontheism. Remember, in his first Inaugural Address he said this:
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.  We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
And who is Frank. R. Wolf? Well, for 34 years he was a Republican Congressman from Virginia, retiring last year, and did defend the rights of some persecuted religious minorities like the Bahá’í. And Wikipedia notes this:
On May 9, 2014, Wolf introduced the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act of 2014 (H.R. 4653; 113th Congress), a bill that would amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) as an independent federal government advisory body through FY2019.
But it adds this:

A devout Christian, Wolf was opposed to abortion and subsidized birth control for federal employees. As congressman, Wolf also voted to deny funding to Planned Parenthood. He also opposed funding for international family planning in developing countries. Wolf also previously asserted that marriage should only be between one man and one woman. As such, he signed a letter supporting the “one man one woman” issue in the Manhattan Declaration. Wolf sponsored the bill that became the District of Columbia Civil Contempt Imprisonment Limitation Act, H.R. 2136, in 1989 and supported the bill that became the Elizabeth Morgan Act in 1996. He was a prominent anti-gay congressman, citing religious scriptures as the basis for his position.

One might have thought that a bill protecting religious minorities would not be named after a guy who tried to enforce Christian morality on the rest of the world. But I’ll take what I can get.

h/t: Richard M.

49 Comments

  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Naming the bill after someone who professed Xian morality is probably how it got passed. Perhaps people only red the name. 🙂

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      And that was autocorrect this time with “red”.

      • Ann German
        Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        Ha! I thought that “Xian morality” was referring to some obscure (to me) minority Asian religious practice . . . funny autocorrect didn’t change that.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          It tried to change it to “Cuba” 😉 but I caught that one in time.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted December 22, 2016 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

            Can’t you zap autocorrect? Surely you have the right not to use or believe in autocorrect…?

            cr

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

              It’s handy most times when my thumbs hit the wrong letter and it helps me type faster so I tolerate its sometime weirdness.

              • Dominic
                Posted December 23, 2016 at 3:30 am | Permalink

                Smartphones? I am an old-fashioned smartphone refusenik!

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted December 23, 2016 at 10:30 am | Permalink

                Smartphone or iPad usually. I have found the dictation option remarkably capable and if I’m alone, I’ll sometimes use that.

              • rickflick
                Posted December 23, 2016 at 4:55 am | Permalink

                I refuse as well. I wonder if we’re becoming obsolete. I sense a bimodal social stratification developing.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted December 23, 2016 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

                Well there was a phase where all phones had 10-key keypads with three letters per key, and the yoof started to develop remarkable dexterity with their right thumb. That lasted maybe a decade. (I still prefer that for my phone, as it’s much smaller and handier and the battery lasts much longer).

                But they have since been largely superseded by smartphones with touchscreens and full 26-key virtual keypads, albeit with remarkably tiny and fiddly ‘keys’ – on the whole I prefer the old keypads, you had to hit far more strokes per key of course, but at least the buttons were physical and large enough to hit accurately.

                cr

      • Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        That’s logical. If a leader leads today and led yesterday, a reader reads today and red yesterday. 😉

        Anyway the president is a lame duck, and
        Google says it best:

        “As a lame duck, the president had nothing to lose by approving the deal.”

  2. garthdaisy
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    A positive step forward but I still don’t see why the word “religion” needs to be used at all in these laws and rights. Freedom of thought and freedom of speech is all we need. Religion does not need to be mentioned. The only thing mentioning religion does is make people think that the religions themselves are the ones granted the freedom and rights rather than the individual. Religions don’t need rights nor do they deserve any legal rights. Individual humans deserve the right to think and speak freely. It’s that simple. Using the word “religion” in the laws on freedom of thought and speech is neither necessary nor wise. One day it will seem like such a primitive thing to say, “freedom of religion.”

  3. Craw
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    If this is an amendment to the 1998 act, then the 1998 act did not explicitly protect atheists. Who signed that act? I sure hope it wasn’t the same guy who signed DOMA!

    • mikeyc
      Posted December 22, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      What is your point?

  4. Kevin
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Steven Weinberg once remarked that after he made some critical claims about protestant Christians not representing Christianity, he was supported by some fundamentalist Christians (he thought in New Mexico) saying that he was right; that their fellow Christians do not take their faith seriously.

    Fundamentalists mostly endorse any law that represses other religions. Liberal Protestants will usually endorse laws that support all religions. On the international stage, it’s a good bet Americans stand for freedom of religion but for completely orthogonal reasons.

  5. Historian
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Note: this is a potential duplicate comment. The first time I tried to post it, it didn’t show up in the comments.

    Here’s how to find the provisions in the bill regarding specific targeting and recanting beliefs.

    Go to this site:

    https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1150/text

    Download the pdf. The provisions are on pages 2 and 3 of the pdf.

    You can use the find feature to search for these phrases:

    “specific targeting” — page 2

    “recant their beliefs” – page 3

  6. Jenny Haniver
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    In my estimation the sentence: “The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion” needs to be explicitly codified in US law. It’s not just the tyranny of organized religion, but the creeping tyranny of some (not all but some) “spiritual but not religious” folks who’re a danger to atheists in the public sphere because they’re just as adamant about the need for belief as those who adhere to some organized religion. For instance, those who find themselves in the criminal justice system (think being sent to AA as an alternative to incarceration) or those who seek government funded social services, including medical services, are liable to be browbeaten or discriminated against by some spiritual zealot who would ram spirituality down their throats as a condition of full access to services. And then there’s creeping Buddhist thought which informs a lot of pop psychology these days. They can’t outright deny services, but they can sure screw over a person who professes atheism and needs those services.

  7. poltiser
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Whatever – it is a move in the right direction!
    Thank you.

  8. J. Quinton
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    A bit off topic, but I have a question/request.

    Can anyone give some examples of YEC belief being detrimental to some aspect of American life? I don’t mean something correlational like YECs are also likely to oppose abortion, and abortion restriction imperils women’s health. That’s not really caused by YEC belief, but is sort of co-morbid with religious fundamentalism.

    The most obvious one I can think of is that YECs try to get the teaching of evolution removed from the classroom. Other than this making more American’s ignorant of a certain parts of biology, how would this lack of science affect the bigger picture?

    • johnw
      Posted December 22, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      YECs aren’t simply opposed to teaching evolution in schools, they are fantasists who deny essentially all science, they will pick and choose certain things not to object to that they see as unthreatening (such as physics) not knowing that those areas of science provide evidence against their viewpoints that is just as strong as evolutionary biology. I think having fantasists in decision-making positions of authority is a very dangerous thing, even if it’s say leading a cub scout outing. And there is the issue of crank magnetism, YEC is not usually the only nutty thing they believe in. Just go to Conservapedia and read what comes along for the ride.

      • colnago80
        Posted December 22, 2016 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        Since it’s physics that provides most of the evidence for a 4.5 billion year old earth, since YECs think that the earth is 6000 years old, they don’t much like physics either.

        • johnw
          Posted December 22, 2016 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

          True…but they sure love to pull out the old second law of thermodynamics, which they then misapply.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 22, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      In an age of science and technology, it is anti-science. How can a democracy function if the people are so ignorant. YEC voters can elect YEC government officials who will gladly decide for you what is going to be true from now on.

      • Posted December 22, 2016 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

        This is what you are supporting. I don’t think you are good people. From the Humanist Manifesto:
        Expanding upon the role the public education establishment should play to bring about the goals described in the Humanist Manifesto II, John Dunphy wrote: “I am convinced that the battle for humankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers that correctly perceive their role as proselytizers of a new faith: a religion of humanity that recognizes and respects the spark of what theologians call divinity in every human being…The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and new — the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with all its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism, resplendent with the promise of a world in which the never-realized Christian ideal of ‘love thy neighbor’ will finally be achieved.”

    • Hempenstein
      Posted December 22, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      Not sure if this really addresses your ?, but here’s one example of scientific progress, deserving to be above the fold, that depends directly on appreciation of evolution (at the molecular level).

  9. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this, very good.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Nice spoof of Mic’s “The Creation of Adam” in the Vocativ article you link to, featuring Barack and the Spaghetti Monster. Maybe Barry can commission its painting on the Oval Office ceiling before he bids adieu.

    Nice quote from his first inaugural, too. Wonder whether the Donald is going to free-wheel his, the way he’s been doing during the “Veni, Vidi, Vici” Victory Tour he’s been on — or whether he’s going to show off his third-grade reading skills with a teleprompter.

    Gonna miss that man Obama, more than we can imagine.

    • Claudia Baker
      Posted December 22, 2016 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      Yes, yes we are Ken. Many of us, up here too in the North country, where he isn’t even our president. I have so much respect for him. Unimaginable what’s taking his place.

      Yesterday, at the gym where I work out, someone on staff added his picture to one of the monitors hanging from the ceiling. It simply said: “Barack Obama, President”.
      Very moving.

  11. Al
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    This goes against the belief of President-elect Donald Trump and his plan to persecute people because of their religious beliefs by denying them access to the U.S.

    Foreign citizens do not have a right to enter the U.S. Yet somehow liberals equate immigration laws with *persecution*. I guess to them anything but open borders is equivalent to discrimination. And that’s when we already have 11 million illegals in this country. No wonder people voted for Trump.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 22, 2016 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Foreigners don’t have a right to enter the US, but this nation has a long history of not denying people opportunities based on their professing the wrong superstition. You understand that, dontcha Al?

      P.S. Over 11 million more Americans voted against Donald Trump than voted for him, 2.8 million of them for a single other candidate. No wonder there either, huh?

      • Al
        Posted December 22, 2016 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

        Setting aside your patronizing attitude, the US has a long history of restricting immigration from particular countries and excluding some ethnic groups altogether (the Chinese Exclusion Act). We can debate the merits and demerits of restricting immigration from Muslim-majority countries (and I do think banning Muslims outright from entering is a counterproductive and unworkable policy), but the point remains that not extending the privilege of entering the US to some people can be equated to persecution only in a liberal mind.

        • rickflick
          Posted December 22, 2016 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

          How is that conclusion affected by the fact that Syrian Muslims are refugees from civil war. Many others refugees are fleeing hard lives in other parts of the Middle East and Africa. The liberal mind wants to avoid neglecting refugees as they once neglected Jews fleeing Hitler. Is their sense of guilt justified?

          • Al
            Posted December 23, 2016 at 8:22 am | Permalink

            There’s no comparison to the Holocaust at all. For one, the majority of Syrian refugees is Muslim and do not face a threat of annihilation in their country as Jews did. Now there are some refugees who are targets of extermination, specifically Yezidi and Christian refugees from the ISIS-held areas, and we should help them. For another, the refugees are being taken to the US from refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. They have already left the war zone and there’s no immediate threat to their life. Unless you think Assad and/or ISIS are going to invade Turkey (a NATO member) these refugees are already safe. This is unlike the German Jews who were trying to leave their country as it was becoming more dangerous and applying for US visas in Germany (mostly legally). The analogy with the Holocaust is completely spurious and is being used to play on the feelings of well-meaning liberals in the West.

            In fact, the best (and most effective) way to help these refugees is to invest more money into refugee camps in the neighboring countries where it will benefit hundreds of thousands rather than fly a few hundreds half a world away into an unfamiliar society where they don’t know the language, don’t have marketable skills and likely won’t ever feel at home (only the next generation will probably become integrated). This is not a solution to the refugee crisis, this is a palliative for the historical guilt overflowing the liberal mind.

            • rickflick
              Posted December 23, 2016 at 9:03 am | Permalink

              Bottom line: you’re saying if they are Christian or Yezidi take ’em in. If they’re Muslim leave ’em be. Sounds like a certain yellow crowned warbler we all know and love.

              • Al
                Posted December 23, 2016 at 10:29 am | Permalink

                Bottom line: as our host has pointed out numerous times, religious and atheist minorities are uniquely under threat in Muslim countries. You seem to have difficulty accepting this reality. I guess comparing your opponent to Trump is a winning argument in some liberal circles but I like to believe we have higher standards for debate on this website.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 22, 2016 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

          Only in the right-wing mind can issues regarding what religious and ethnic minorities should be prevented from entering the country legally (for any purpose) be tied to there being “11 million illegals in this country” already.

          Please explain how having 11 million “illegals” (as you call them) in the country should influence the decision whether to prohibit Muslims from entering the country legally?

          • Al
            Posted December 23, 2016 at 8:40 am | Permalink

            Seems like the word “illegal” has you triggered. It is a shorthand for “illegal immigrant” and appropriately describes their immigration status in the US. I will readily admit that there’s no direct relationship between the decision to admit more immigrants from the Muslim-majority countries and the reality of illegal immigration except in the sense of the latter exposing the absurdity and the failures of the immigration system. Instead of forming our immigration policy around the needs of the economy it is based in large part on public feelings and public opinion. When these opinions turn under influence of external events (like terror attacks), we get Trump.

            • johnw
              Posted December 23, 2016 at 9:41 am | Permalink

              I readily admit being unaware of all the details of US immigration policy, but it seems to me that it is enforced (or not enforced) precisely according to the needs of the economy. The agriculture and construction industries have always happily employed the vast majority of undocumented workers, to the great benefit of their bottom line. Anti-immigrant conservatives would better off putting pressure on those industries if the really can’t bear that unthinkable 3% of the population ruining their America.

              • Al
                Posted December 23, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

                This is correct but it’s only a part of the story. The immigration system in the US is family-based as opposed to skill-based. In this the US stands in stark contrast to Australia, Canada, the UK and many other countries that put a premium on skills and education attainment and try to attract the best and the brightest to their shores. In the future economy, as more and more low-skilled jobs will be automated, the countries that can attract high-skilled talent will thrive. The current system instead imports more and more low-skilled labor putting extra downward pressure on working class wages in the process.

                https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-11-17/canada-should-be-trump-s-model-for-immigration-reform

                This has nothing to do with conservatism or fear of immigrants “ruining America”. In fact, conservatives should love the influx of low-skilled labor from Catholic countries of Latin America given their religiosity and strict family values (plus it provides the vaunted “job creators” with cheap labor to exploit and underpay). In contrast, liberals should be agitating for more highly-educated immigrants who bring less superstition and have more liberal views.

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted December 23, 2016 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

                Donald Trump recently imported 64 foreign nationals to work the winter season at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, FL. (He did so despite the local Work Force program informing him that it had unemployed Americans, trained for the same type of work, available to fill those jobs. I’m sure, foreign workers are more tractable, especially once you have their passports locked up in the office safe.)

                Guess that’s his idea of how to Make America Great Again — and how to demonstrate appreciation to his working-class supporters.

              • rickflick
                Posted December 23, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

                “Donald Trump recently imported 64 foreign…”

                Ken, I was pretty skeptical when a read a prediction that Trump would be impeached. But, this kind of thing is beginning to convince me that it’s a distinct possibility. Of course I have to try to keep my hopes from influencing my judgement. 😉

  12. jaxkayaker
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the bill was so named ironically.

  13. Pali
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    I recall his recent interview on Real Time with Bill Maher included a point where they discussed his recognition of atheists and whether anti-atheist persecution happens, with Obama questioning how often it occurs. It’d be fun to think that afterwards he decided to look it up and thought “huh, maybe Bill had a point.”

  14. Jonathan Dore
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Obama’s mother was a non-believer; that’s how he was raised, and I suspect this may partly be an act of filial piety in her memory.

  15. Posted December 22, 2016 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry. Is this one of your primary objectives being a Humanist?
    Expanding upon the role the public education establishment should play to bring about the goals described in the Humanist Manifesto II, John Dunphy wrote: “I am convinced that the battle for humankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers that correctly perceive their role as proselytizers of a new faith: a religion of humanity that recognizes and respects the spark of what theologians call divinity in every human being…The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and new — the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with all its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism, resplendent with the promise of a world in which the never-realized Christian ideal of ‘love thy neighbor’ will finally be achieved.”

    • Posted December 22, 2016 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      And what do you think about Paul Kurtz, the founder of CFI being pushed out by the board in 2009? This is from CFI Wikipedia: According to Paul Kurtz, in June 2009, being at odds with new CEO Ronald Lindsay, Kurtz was voted out as chairman. Kurtz has described the direction of CFI under Lindsay as “angry atheism” in contrast to his affirmative humanist philosophical approach.

  16. Larry
    Posted December 22, 2016 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    This strikes me a little odd that while various beliefs are to protected in foreign lands, atheists and Jews in the U.S. military are still discriminated against.

  17. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    atheists are reviled as if they were lepers

    Leper for Prez!

  18. johnw
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Responding to Al above here,

    Having these discussions and using liberal versus conservative as binary terms that always accurately categorize people’s beliefs eventually becomes a problem. The two groups are not monolithic, just in some varying sense roughly halves or perhaps even thirds of a spectrum. That said, most liberals don’t advocate for immigration on the basis of what kind of workers are needed. IMHO, folks on the left don’t see undocumented immigration as a big issue because it involves a 3% minority which has always been there, does jobs that no one else is exactly clamoring for, and because ultimately we are all the descended from immigrants. Why punch down at the poor farm worker who’s just trying to escape poverty, or the poor refugee from the middle east just trying to survive. Doesn’t involve guilt just empathy for others less fortunate. And btw, I think the inescapable reality is that vilifying undocumented immigrants as well as muslim refugees was a big part of the “not politically correct” appeal of Trump for those on the right. Whether all conservatives see it that way may be another question.


%d bloggers like this: