New York Times examines secular campaign, but from only one side

Atheists have lately been taking a page from the playbook of some Christians, who cry persecution when they face antagonism or discrimination. The newest chapter in this avowed liberation movement is the subject of a New York Times newsfeature: a drive to strike anti-atheism clauses from state constitutions.

The 1,150-word Times article is satisfyingly long, in an era when many newspapers are reluctant to keep religion specialists, let alone give much space to religion coverage. But the has a few limitations, which we'll look at a bit later.

It starts with the landmark 1961 case of Roy Torcaso, the Maryland bookkeeper who was denied a job because he was an atheist. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Torcaso, of course.

The Times continues:

But 53 years later, Maryland and six other states still have articles in their constitutions saying people who do not believe in God are not eligible to hold public office. Maryland’s Constitution still says belief in God is a requirement even for jurors and witnesses.
Now a coalition of nonbelievers says it is time to get rid of the atheist bans because they are discriminatory, offensive and unconstitutional. The bans are unenforceable dead letters, legal experts say, and state and local governments have rarely invoked them in recent years. But for some secular Americans, who are increasingly visible and organized, removing the bans is not only a just cause, but a test of their growing movement’s political clout.

Rather like the anti-Christmas billboard campaign by American Atheists, the coalition -- called Openly Secular -- is targeting southeastern states, although Maryland and Pennsylvania are also in their crosshairs. And the Times article has some truly surprising facts on how firmly theistic some state constitutions sound, requiring belief in God for public office holders.

The Times notes that Article VI of the U.S. Constitution forbids a "religious test" for federal office. Adds the article: "And since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Torcaso case, states have clearly been prohibited from making belief in God a requirement for public office."

Also in the story are two cases, in both Carolinas, in which a legislator and a notary public won their battles in court. Secular leaders now want to start lobbying state legislators to expunge theistic language from the books. But they confess that it's an uphill battle.

I was intrigued by the idea that this anti-theism crusade is "a test of their growing movement’s political clout." But I don’t see it supported in the article, either in quotes or studies.

In some spots, the Times seems to follow the coalition's lead in deciding the direction of the story. An example:

Organizers with Openly Secular see the bans as evidence of the quiet bigotry and discrimination faced by many atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers. They point to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center this year showing that nearly half of Americans would disapprove if a family member married an atheist.

See what I mean? The story simply adopts the campaign language that says agnostics, humanists and freethinkers have much in common with atheists. But that argument is, well, argumentative. Humanists and freethinkers may well be spiritual and even theist. And even some atheists don't live to fight religion. If a source wants to lump them all together, he/she be challenged to back it up.

And who is leading the Openly Secular coalition? The article identifies the "chairman and primary funder" as Todd Stiefel, but says nothing more about him. What's his background? How did he come to take this as his crusade? How much is it costing him? And why launch his own group when others, like the Secular Coalition of America, are doing similar work?

Finally, the Times article has a strong imbalance of talking heads. It cites Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It quotes Ira C. Lupu, a professor emeritus from George Washington University. And it hands four paragraphs to Jamie B. Raskin, a Maryland state legislator and a constitutional law professor at American University. All of them lean Stiefel's way.

Only in the last two paragraphs does the Times get around to mentioning that "there be some resistance" to overturning the anti-atheism laws -- and offers no logical reasons:

Christopher B. Shank, the Republican minority whip in the Maryland Senate, said that while he believed in pluralism, “I think what they want is an affirmation that the people of the state of Maryland don’t care about the Christian faith, and that is a little offensive.”

After all, there are plenty of gray suits on the other side: Baylor Law School, the Thomas More Society, the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the American Center for Law & Justice. They could likely offer viewpoints to balance those in the article.

The Times piece, then, serves as a good introduction to the atheists' crusade. But as a comprehensive look at the issues, it falls short in several spots. Perhaps it would work better as one of two parts, with the second citing the loyal opposition.

That, too, should be a page in the playbook -- of those who cover controversies.

Please respect our Commenting Policy