In updating an 18-year-old religious freedom law, Congress this year decided for the first time to expressly protect the rights of people around the world who practice no religion at all.
President Obama signed the International Religious Freedom Act on Friday, hailed by Republicans and Democrats as way to strengthen the ability of the United States to call out countries that oppress or persecute people for their religious beliefs.
But now the law includes a reference to nonbelievers as well.
“The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs and the right not to profess or practice any religion,” according to the new law governing international programs, which passed the House and Senate unanimously, without controversy.
The addition was lauded by humanists, who said incidents of violence against atheists in places like Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia are an affront to anyone who cares about religious freedom. Shaping U.S. foreign policy to protect human rights is common ground for groups that normally don’t agree on much, like atheists and Christian conservatives.
“Religious freedom for all people, theists and non-theists, is an American value we must protect,” said Matthew Bulger, legislative director of the American Humanist Association.
The new legislation strengthens the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which gives the State Department the ability to identify and denounce regimes that violate the rights of people to worship freely. The update allows the U.S. government to also designate non-state actors like terrorist groups or individuals, create a comprehensive list of religious prisoners, and require international religious freedom training for all foreign service officers. Continue Reading