May 27, 2009

The Proposition 8 Ruling: Implications for Atheists

On May 26, 2009, California's Supreme Court made history by voting 6-1 to uphold Proposition 8, a voter-approved amendment the state constitution to define marriage an an exclusively heterosexual act. One may wonder how such a thing could be possible in a state with such a liberal reputation. In brief, the initial passage of Proposition 8 was made possible by the massive financial support of the Mormon church and other Christian groups. And based on state law, it appears that the Supreme Court had little recourse but to uphold the law. I am optimistic that California will legalize same-sex marriage in 2010 when this issue is before the voters again, but that does not take away the sting of the latest ruling. There are lessons here for the fledgling atheist movement too, and we would be remiss to neglect them.

Proposition 8 should be a nightmare scenario for any atheist because it shows us that well-funded religious groups can essentially mold the law to enforce their bigotry. They believed that same-sex marriage is immoral on the basis of their religion, and they effectively banned it.

History provides numerous examples of where privileged Christians have legislated their view of morality. Whether we think of prohibition, anti-miscegenation laws, or efforts to censor certain forms of music in the 1980s and 1990s, we see a common theme emerging. These groups want to force their religion on others through theocratic means. They threaten everything that makes America worthwhile.

We have recently learned that at least one high-profile Christian extremist opposes marriage between atheists and Christians. Who is to say that this will not be the next measure to appear on the ballot? And who is to say that they might not achieve their desired outcome by pouring enough money into it?

I have recently grown frustrated with some heterosexual atheists talking about how they oppose Proposition 8 as some sort of gift to their gay friends even though it is "irrelevant" to them. If you are truly convinced that gay rights is irrelevant to those of us who are not gay, then I'm not sure why you would expect anyone to give a damn about our rights as atheists. How can the civil rights of any group be irrelevant?

I have reached the unpleasant conclusion that some sort of vaguely articulated atheist movement is simply insufficient. We need an atheist rights movement in order to protect those liberties we currently have from encroachment by Christian extremists and other religious fanatics. We need true atheist activism to raise awareness among atheists and other groups, to cultivate effective power, and to respond to religiously-motivated attacks. We need to build atheist community to provide support to those who are desperate for a kind word or a willing ear.

The forces of bigotry have learned a great deal about how to influence the political and legal processes. If we refuse to learn from our experience, we risk giving up our basic rights. That is one risk I am simply not willing to take.

(photo by Tony the Misfit)