Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Alexandra Aaron
Alexandra Aaron is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Political Science and History.
In October 2014, a federal district court in Oregon ruled that Secular Humanism qualifies as a religion and adherents are thus entitled to the same constitutional—and, more specifically, First Amendment—protections as other religious groups. This decision has significant implications for atheists and agnostics who have been fighting for recognition and equality under the law. In this case, senior Judge Lance Haggerty agreed with the plaintiffs that denying Humanists the same rights as so called “mainstream” religious groups such as Christianity violated the Establishment Clause, which states that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” 
The case was brought by the American Humanist Association (AHA) and federal prisoner Jason Holder who attempted to organize a Humanist study group but was prohibited from doing so. Should Judge Haggerty’s decision be upheld, Humanist prisoners will be able to meet and study with one another, which is generally only permitted for religious reasons.  Moreover, such a ruling has the potential to expand religious protections to atheists and agnostics.
Humanists adhere to a philosophy that values the agency of human beings rather than divine or supernatural powers, often defining themselves as “nontheists” who generally reject the notion that there is, in fact, a god. They instead rely on modern science to explain the origins of human existence.  It is the rejection of a creator that has caused many to oppose the recognition of Humanists or atheists in general as a formal religious denomination that affords them the same constitutional protections.
In recent years, America’s Judeo-Christian culture in law and in politics has become increasingly problematic for those who believe that their First Amendment’s guarantee of a separation of church and state is being disregarded. Socially conservative politicians and judges are straying from decades of precedence in arguing that the Establishment Clause does not explicitly imply a separation of church and state, and maintain that Judeo-Christian values are inherent to America and its foundations. 
In a speech delivered at Colorado Christian University, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the Establishment Clause does not mean that “government cannot favor religion over non-religion,” and that celebrating a Christian God in public forums was in the “best of American traditions.”  Known for his devout Catholicism, Scalia allies himself with the Court’s conservative faction that has increasingly ruled in this regard.
In the 2013 Supreme Court case Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Court ruled that it was not unconstitutional for the New York town of Greece to allow clergyman to begin their monthly board meetings with a prayer, despite the fact that in every instance the chaplains were exclusively of the Christian faith.  It was primarily this exclusivity that formed the basis of the dissent of four out of the five Justices, who opposed the majority’s holding that the town’s meetings were not discriminatory or coercive and for this reason they did not violate the First Amendment. Another aspect of the majority decision that was strongly opposed was the role of tradition in American society.
This rejection of the Constitution’s guarantee of the separation of church is what has led some atheists and agnostics, and specifically Humanists, to fight for recognition of their own religious liberties by the state. By allowing Judeo-Christian values into the public sphere and not recognizing other less mainstream religious beliefs that do not accept the existence of a god, the state is not only “respecting an establishment of religion,” but they are “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Oregon’s federal district court decision has implications that may reach far beyond the rights of prisoners, and potentially affects the rights of all Americans, particularly those that do not adhere to Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.
 Jenkins, Jace. “Atheists Score Major Win In Federal Court.” Think Progress, November 3, 2014. http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/11/03/3587801/district-court-declares-secular-humanism-a-religion/.
 Ashtari, Shadee. "Federal Court Rulings Extends Equal Protection Rights to Atheists." Huffington Post, November 3, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/03/atheist-religion-oregon-court_n_6095776.html.
 "American Humanist Association." American Humanist Association. Accessed February 22, 2015. http://americanhumanist.org/Humanism/Definitions_of_Humanism.
 Levi, Edward. “Eviscerating the Establishment Clause.” Huffington Post, April 6, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/geoffrey-r-stone/eviscerating-the-establis_b_845646.html.
 Ashtari, Jadee.“Antonin Scalia Says Constitution Permits Court To 'Favor Religion Over Non-Religion.” Huffington Post, October 2, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/02/antonin-scalia-religion-government_n_5922944.html.
 Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S (2014)
 Liptak, Adam. “Town Meetings Can Have Prayer, Justices Decide.” New York Times, May 5, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/06/nyregion/supreme-court-allows-prayers-at-town-meetings.html?r=0.
Photo Credit: "AmesburyMA UnionCongregationalChurch" by Magicpiano - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AmesburyMA_UnionCongregationalChurch.jpg#mediaviewer/File:AmesburyMA_UnionCongregationalChurch.jpg