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Religious freedom: Not just for the religious

Atheists, humanists and other nonreligious people face discrimination and persecution in many parts of the world, according to "Freedom of Thought 2012," a report released this week by the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

The survey is the first to highlight how people with no religious affiliation -- sometimes dubbed "religious nones" by pollsters -- often are treated as second-class citizens, outsiders or, in some societies, enemies of the state.

The worst offenders are authoritarian regimes such as Iran and Saudi Arabia that use anti-blasphemy laws and other measures to protect a particular sect of Islam as the state religion and deny religious freedom to atheists and everyone else -- including minority Muslim groups.

In such places, open espousal of atheism can lead to imprisonment or death.

Less draconian, but still discriminatory, are laws in many countries against speech that disparages or offends religion. Legal restrictions on free expression are prevalent across the globe from El Salvador to Austria to India. Even where rarely enforced, such laws have a chilling effect on speech, especially speech perceived as critical of religion.

The report identifies countries with constitutional provisions protecting freedom of religion and belief that are not enforced to provide equal treatment under the law. Zambia, to cite one example, guarantees religious liberty but requires mandatory Christian instruction for all elementary school students.

The release of the IHEU report this week was timed to coincide with Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Rights by the United Nations on Dec. 10, 1948.

Although Article 18 of the declaration proclaims that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," many nations pay lip service to what is supposed to be an international norm. Sadly, Human Rights Day has become less a celebration and more an occasion to bemoan how little there is to celebrate.

Of course, violations of Article 18 affect people of all faiths and beliefs. But year after year religious-freedom advocates focus media attention on the plight of religious individuals and groups suffering from discrimination and persecution around the globe. Little mention is made of atheists, humanists, freethinkers and other nonreligious people.

That's why the IHEU report is a welcome reminder that religious freedom isn't just for the religious.

Properly understood and applied, religious liberty is the freedom of every individual to think, speak and act according to the dictates of conscience.

If any nation deserves high marks for protecting liberty of conscience for all, it's the United States. Though the authors of the report criticize the symbolic references to God by government (what the Supreme Court has described as "ceremonial deism"), they also underscore the strong protections in law that create "an exceptionally open society in which all people are afforded equal rights to practice religion or not."

Atheists in America suffer less from government repression and more from social prejudice, including from some government officials who in subtle and not-so-subtle ways favor the majority faith.

According to the report, the problem is pronounced in the U.S. military, where atheists and humanists often feel marginalized and unsupported. (Just last week a cadet resigned from West Point, charging discrimination against nonreligious cadets and promotion of religion by school officials.)

As the United States celebrated its own human rights day Saturday -- the 221st anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights -- it is worth recalling what is often forgotten or overlooked:

The first freedom protected by the First Amendment is a universal right for people of all faiths -- and none.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Washignton-based Newseum. chaynes@freedomforum.org