Portland Discrimination Law Adds Protections for Atheists

The City of Portland, Oregon has amended the Portland Civil Rights Ordinance to clarify that religious discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of atheism and agnosticism. In a press release, Commissioner Anna Fritz, who submitted the ordinance to the City Council, stated that “Freedom of religion includes freedom not to affiliate with a religious belief. This Resolution clarifies that fact.”

The law, which applies in the realms of employment, housing, and public accommodations, goes into effect on March 29, 2019.

Religious Discrimination and Non-Religion: Federal and State Law

Employers, housing providers, and places of public accommodation are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religion under federal and Oregon state law. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are also required to provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, so long as the accommodation would not impose undue hardship on the business.

“Religion” is not explicitly defined in either law, but enforcement agencies and courts have generally held that the category of religion includes atheism as a sincerely held belief regarding religion. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces federal discrimination law, references atheism in several of its guidance materials. In the EEOC fact sheet What You Should Know About Workplace Religious Accommodation, the agency cites an atheist’s need “to be excused from the religious invocation offered at the beginning of staff meetings” as an example of valid need for religious accommodation.

Despite the legal backing, individuals may not be aware that atheism or other forms of non-religion are protected under anti-discrimination laws. This is why municipalities like Portland have begun to step in. In 2015 Madison, Wisconsin became the first in the U.S. to pass a local ordinance which explicitly protects atheists and agnostics from discrimination.

Portland Civil Rights Ordinance: Religion To Include Non-Religion

Under the Portland Civil Rights Ordinance, it is unlawful to discriminate in employment on the basis of an individual’s:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Color
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Gender identity
  • National origin
  • Marital status
  • Familial status
  • Source of income
  • Age (for individuals over the age of 18)
  • Disability

The ordinance previously stated that all protected classes referenced were as defined by Oregon state law. However, state law does not provide a definition of “religion.” The new ordinance amends local law to provide a definition of “religion” which “expressly includes non-religion, such as atheism, agnosticism, and non-belief in God or gods as has been recognized by the courts.”

The employment provisions of the Portland Civil Rights Ordinance apply to every employer with one or more employees operating within the city. The ordinance also prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, including non-religion, in housing and public accommodations.

Portland does not require individuals covered by the Civil Rights Ordinance to post a notice in the workplace or business environment. However, employers and other covered entities should ensure that supervisors and other employees are aware and in compliance with the new law before March 29.

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