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God(less)mother: My sister (and only sibling) recently gave birth to her first child, a girl. While she has continued to practice the Roman Catholic faith of our childhood, I have long since considered myself an open and resolute atheist. My sister plans to baptize her child in her faith and has indirectly implied that she’d like me to serve as godmother for her daughter. While I am touched by the gesture, I cannot bring myself to support and promise to guide a child in the rites of the Catholic Church in light of the horror of recent scandals and the organization’s history of hostility towards women. I have not set foot in a Catholic church in years and feel uncomfortable doing so even to attend my niece’s baptism, let alone serve as godmother. May I decline my sister’s request on moral grounds without condemning her choice? Is there an alternative (and secular) way I can make my care and support of her daughter known? Should I just attend the event to pacify the rest of my practicing Catholic family?
—Everything But The God Part
Dear Everything But,
You need to tell your sister the same things you’ve said in your letter: You would love to be a significant figure in your niece’s life, and you can in every respect—except guiding her in Catholicism. Tell your sister you could make a point of sharing with your niece your own principles of morality and how to live a good life, or you could downplay (but not banish) that topic, whichever you sister would prefer. As your niece grows up, however, everyone should accept that the relationship will develop in its own way, and if your niece takes an interest in your worldview, you should be free to explain it to her.
Unless it would make you or your sister uncomfortable, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t attend the baptism as the atheist family member that you are. But whether you opt out or not, be sure to participate in or even host secular celebrations with your niece, such as her birthdays and holidays like Thanksgiving, Independence Day and New Year’s. Before you know it, you can be the aunt who always shows up for school events, sports play-offs and recitals, or who takes her niece to movies, museums and parks. As for a secular role in lieu of godmother, the designation “aunt”—maybe preceded by “special”—serves just fine. It’s not really about any title but rather the caring relationship you cultivate with your niece, starting now and hopefully flourishing and deepening over the years to come.
When is the Right to Refuse Wrong? Lately many businesses have refused to provide service to atheists (Freedom From Religion Foundation was refused by several florists when leaders tried to send flowers to the student activist Jessica Ahlquist) and gay couples (such as this one when they tried to buy a wedding cake).
Where does the line fall between personal rights and legal obligation? Lately there seem to be lots of disputes arising out of religious convictions. Do religious people have more clout than other grounds for refusing service? Are atheists protected under religious discrimination laws?
—Free to Just Say No?
According to Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, the ACLU has increasingly been addressing cases about refusal, particularly religious refusal, from many angles. “This is an issue that has arisen with alarming frequency lately, and there are several layers to the analysis,” he says.
The first question in any of these scenarios is whether service is being refused to someone because of their status in a protected class (race, sex, national origin, religion, etc.), or for some non-protected reason. “As a private business, you’re generally allowed to refuse service to any non-protected class—e.g., all lefties (political or -handed), or redheads, or Nazis, or Red Sox fans. It doesn’t matter whether your reason is religiously motivated, you can do it regardless.”
Mach illustrates with this scenario: Assume in a state that protects against LGBT discrimination in public accommodations, a restaurant owner refuses to serve someone who happens to be a gay left-handed person. If the owner does so because he hates lefties, no violation of the law; in his defense, the owner can demonstrate that he serves the LGBT community all other times–just not when they’re left-handed. But if it can be shown that he never serve gays and lesbians, he has broken the law.
That typically should end the story, but occasionally some owners or employers will argue, “Sure, I’ve broken the law. But I have a religious right to an exemption from that law.” In general, courts have been reluctant to recognize such a right–especially where the owner/employer is a for-profit corporation (as opposed to, say, a religious organization engaged in a religious enterprise). But such claims are being asserted with greater frequency these days: Religiously-affiliated schools firing women because they became pregnant while not married; business owners refusing to provide insurance coverage for contraception for their employees; graduate students, training to be social workers, refusing to counsel gay people; pharmacies turning away women seeking to fill birth control prescriptions; bridal salons, photo studios, and reception halls closing their doors to same-sex couples planning their weddings.
So when it’s a question of both sides invoking their rights, who wins? “In general, courts historically have rejected efforts by businesses seeking religiously motivated exemptions from civil rights laws,” says Mach. The protected person must be served, even if the server believes god, and religious freedom, is on his side.
Getting back to the florist dispute, Mach says the florists can’t win under prevailing law, even if they can demonstrate religious grounds for refusing service. “Refusing service to someone because she is an atheist is plainly religious discrimination,” Mach explains. “And even if the underlying motivation were religious, a for-profit florist wouldn’t qualify for any exemption from the governing anti-discrimination rules.” Isn’t it nice that in this country, laws protecting religious beliefs also protect those who don’t believe in religions?
Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.