President Obama has signed a bill into law that will protect non-religious people from persecution by religious extremists. Called the “Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act,” the new law will protect humanists, atheists, freethinkers, anti-theists and others. It is an amendment to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that had created a watchdog group called the US Commission on International Religious Freedom that monitors persecution of religious minorities in many countries. The new law’s stated purpose is as follows:
“To amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to improve the ability of the United States to advance religious freedom globally through enhanced diplomacy, training, counterterrorism, and foreign assistance efforts, and through stronger and more flexible political responses to religious freedom violations and violent extremism worldwide.”
The new amendment states, ”The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion.” In other words, it defines freedom of religion as including the freedom to practice no religion. It also enables the State Department to target “non-state actors” or groups that aren’t associated with any given government. Examples of such organizations that have persecuted religious minorities include Boko Haram and the Islamic State group.
The Act also condemns any “policy or practice of routinely denying applications for visas for religious workers in a country can be indicative of a poor state of religious freedom in that country.” By contrast, President-elect Trump had announced plans to deny people the right to come to the US based on their religion. In order to enact such plans, he would have to repeal the new law first.
The Act makes history by being the first federal law in the United States to explicitly protect the rights of non-religious people. It had been passed in Congress with bipartisan support. Some speculate that Republican supporters had backed the new law because it would protect people from Muslim extremists. It would indeed increase protections for both believers and non-believers all over the world.
The executive director of the American Humanist Association, Roy Speckhardt, was very pleased by the new law. He called the recognition of non-theists “as a protected class is a significant step toward full acceptance and inclusion for non-religious individuals, who are still far too often stigmatized and persecuted around the world.”