On December 16, 2016, President Obama signed into law a new version of the International Religious Freedom Act from 1998. The older law established the USCIRF, a government commission we will learn about in class, in an effort to protect religious freedom. The interesting thing about this new version of the law is that it explicitly accords the same protection to atheists and other non-religious persons. The new law can be found here. An RNS article can be found here.
That the new language has been included is not surprising if you have been following trends in religion and church-state relations. In fact, the new language reflects two larger trends that have been going on for some time in the U.S. First, there is growing acceptance of atheists and non-religious persons more generally in the U.S. Though still a small percentage of Americans, their numbers are growing and with lots of public attention. Second, for some time legal rulings have used functional rather than substantive definitions of religion. It is not a belief in god or gods that has merited legal protections but rather any sort of belief system that a person claims, even if that belief system is explicitly atheistic.
What will be interesting is to see how this change in the law is reflected in future USCIRF annual reports on religious freedom around the world. Will future reports give increased attention to persecution of atheists?