Federal Court Rules ‘Secular Humanism’ a Religion, Extends Equal Protection Rights to Atheists
In a landmark decision last week, a federal judge in Oregon declared ‘secular humanism’ to be a religion, opining that those who profess to be atheists and secular humanists should be afforded equal protection rights under the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and be allowed to enjoy the same liberties to practice religion that religious groups are able to enjoy.
Jason Holden, an atheist inmate who is serving time at the Federal Correctional Institute in Sheridan, Oregon, filed suit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons in April for rejecting his requests to form a study group on humanism. The Federal Bureau of Prisons denied the request on the ground that humanism was not a religious affiliation under existing prison classification, and hence Holden elevated it to federal court.
Senior District Judge Ancer Haggerty of the federal district court ruled in favor of Holden in order to exercise his constitutional right to form a humanist study group. Haggerty ruled that Holden’s constitutional rights were violated under the First and Fifth Amendments. In his ruling, he moved to recognize secular humanism as a religion for “Establishment Clause” purposes. Under the Establishment Clause, Haggerty’s rationale is that secular humanism must be able to enjoy the same liberties as other religious organizations because it is a constitutional principle that no religion shall be established above others as a state religion.
The American Humanist Association co-filed the case with Holden in the case American Humanist Association vs United States and declared the ruling a victory for secular groups to be afforded the same legal rights that are available to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims – all of whom were permitted to organize under the current federal prison system. Haggerty sided with the plaintiffs, citing legal precedent in the case Torcaso vs Watkins which cited Secular Humanism as a religion in the decision to prohibit state and federal governments from passing laws to have religious requirements in holding public office.
“As humanists, we believe in the ability of mankind to transcend their differences and to reach some common ground and make the world a better place,” Holden commented during an interview with Upton Radio. “We simply want the same thing other religious groups are provided,” he said.
“The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes,” Judge Haggerty wrote in his ruling last Thursday. “Allowing followers of other faiths to join religious group meetings while denying Holden the same privilege is discrimination on the basis of religion.”
Humanism as an organized group has grown in the past years, with members establishing Humanist congregations at Harvard University, American University, Rutgers University, and Colombia University. Nonreligious Americans which include atheists and secular humanists have fought for the rights to be included to offer invocations at government meetings. The American Humanist Association has likewise fought for the right of 3.6 percent of nonreligious Army members to have access to formal Humanist chaplains in the US military as the US Army moved to include “Humanist” as a religious affiliation.