By Mary Spicuzza
In what is believed to be a first in the nation, the Madison City Council has voted to amend the city's equal opportunities ordinance to make "nonreligion" a protected class.
The ordinance, which was approved Tuesday night, adds atheists to the official list of people who could face discrimination.
It comes as Indiana is facing a firestorm of criticism over its new "religious freedom" laws amid charges that it is a thinly disguised attempt to permit discrimination against gays.
"This is important because I believe it is only fair that if we protect religion, in all its varieties, we should also protect nonreligion from discrimination. It's only fair," said Ald. Anita Weier, the bill's chief sponsor, Madison's WISC TV reported.
It was sponsored by 14 of the council's 20 members.
Madison's amendment to protect atheists will take effect once it is signed by Mayor Paul Soglin and then published. He signed the measure on Wednesday.
Several people with the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation spoke in favor of the amendment at Tuesday night's meeting.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, the group's co-president, praised Weir, an outgoing council member, for coming up with the idea.
"We're kicking ourselves that we never thought of it," Gaylor said. "Nonbelievers are near the bottom of the totem poll."
Gaylor said she hopes Madison's move spurs a national movement that will inspire others, including the State of Wisconsin, to pass similar measures.
Gaylor confirmed that Madison is believed to be the first city in the United States to officially add atheists as a protected class.
Madison's new measure adds the words "or atheism" after "religion" in several sections of the city's legal code detailing what is a protected class.
Todd Stiefel, chairman of the Ohio-based nonprofit Openly Secular, called the Madison vote "magnificent."
Americans are increasingly identifying as non-religiously affiliated, many of them agnostic or atheist. Surveys by the Pew Research Center and Public Religion Research Institute of Americans suggest that 20% or more of Americans and more than a third of those under 30 describe themselves as unaffiliated. Fewer than 3% of adults identify as atheists.
According to the American Humanist Association, seven states have laws banning atheists from holding public office, though they have been deemed unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Stiefel said his group has tried unsuccessfully to persuade lawmakers to remove the measures that discriminate against atheists in public office.
"Similar laws have been on the books banning Catholics, Jews, African Americans, even women. And those have been removed. But they won't remove ours," he said.
Journal Sentinel reporter Annysa Johnson contributed to this report.
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