Religion holds an exalted status in American society, partly because it addresses big issues and partly because religious institutions have been so historically important in western civilization. Religion is seen as unique, a serious subject that tries to answer questions of life meaning, ethics and morality, God, and ultimate truth. Surely, with its focus on such deep inquiries, religion is an area that deserves special consideration.
Maybe, but let’s make one thing clear: Religion isn’t nearly as important as sex.
We can see the relative real-world importance of sex and religion by considering how each is handled in society, and in especially in the courts. The remarkable progress in the area of gay rights in recent years, for example, reflects the importance that society gives to the deeply personal issue of sexuality. When the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas, it recognized that government has no business regulating the sexual behavior of consenting adults in the privacy of their homes.
Conservatives such as Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia criticized the Lawrence ruling as promoting “the homosexual agenda,” but most of us see the case as enlightened, reflecting the values of an inclusive modern society. Life is short, sexuality is important, and a free country should allow its citizens sexual freedom. Regardless of what you happen to believe about heaven, God, or angels and demons, we can all agree that sexual intimacy is an important part of real life. From that premise, the legal extension of marriage rights to include same-sex couples was a logical step.
When the subject is religion, however, we find that the public and the courts are much less sympathetic to claims of inequality from minorities. Stop your whining, minorities are told. Suck it up! The message is clear: we don’t take religion that seriously – certainly not as seriously as sex.
Now, as an atheist, humanist, and human being living in the real world, I concur with the notion that sex beats religion. Even on Sunday morning (maybe especially so), I’d take the former over the latter. But nevertheless, particularly as an attorney, I find it troubling that so much lip service is paid to the subject of religious equality, only to have legitimate concerns about inequality brushed aside. A case in point is one personal to me, Doe v. Acton-Boxborough, which was decided earlier this month by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. In Doe, the court ruled that there is nothing discriminatory about daily, teacher-led classroom recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, even though the official exercise declares the nation to be “under God.” Since the Pledge defines patriotism in theistic terms, it obviously favors theists while portraying atheists as second-class citizens at best. As such, in making the challenge in Doe, the plaintiffs relied not on church-state separation arguments, but on principles of equality. (Disclosure: I was counsel for the atheist side in the case.)
But the court – ironically, the same body that gave us the breakthrough decision in 2003 that legalized same-sex marriage for the first time in the country – slammed the door on atheist equality. No discrimination here, the court said. If you don’t like it, just sit and watch as your class defines patriotism in a way that excludes you. Thousands of times – every day, for 13 years.
Such facts are hard to justify under a standard of equality. Moreover, even beyond those facts, atheist claims of discrimination cannot be seriously questioned. Academic research confirms what most of us already know: atheists are among the most disliked minority groups in the country. It's also just as well documented that prejudice against atheists is wrong, since extensive research shows that social problems do not generally correlate with atheist individuals or societies. (In fact, just the opposite - social problems correlate to religion.)
But frankly, the court in Doe was in some ways simply reflecting public sentiments on symbolic issues such as the Pledge, the national motto of In God We Trust, and others. Even some liberals consider such complaints to be little more than whining. Though most liberals and nonbelievers were sympathetic to our case, I met a few who shrugged their shoulders and questioned the need for such litigation: Sure, the Pledge favors believers over nonbelievers, but it’s not such a big deal, is it? It’s not like we’re talking about anything important – like sex!
In fact, however, many atheists and humanists see the symbolic issues as very important. For one thing, they don't like the idea of their kids being constantly confronted with such governmental religiosity, and having to explain to them that it doesn't really mean they are outsiders, that it doesn't really mean anything. For another, the entire nation has lurched in the direction of anti-reason since the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s, and the symbolic issues that inject religiosity into the public arena give undeserved validation and legitimacy to those right-wing religious interests. You can disagree with such concerns, and you can continue to see the symbolic issues as unimportant in your view, but if the law says atheists and humanists deserve equality, it seems they should get it whether you agree or not.