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Atheists beware: a new lawsuit tries to turn the Establishment Clause into a blasphemy law for college professors

The Eternally Radical Idea

If you believe in religious freedom, freedom of conscience, free-speech, or academic freedom you should definitely be interested in a new lawsuit out of Arizona. The lawsuit essentially argues that in-classroom speech critical of religion isn't just unprotected, it could actually be a constitutional violation itself.

The lawsuit was in response to an incident at Scottsdale Community College, where a quiz covering the “Islamic Terrorism” module of Professor Nicholas Damask’s World Politics class led to the school attempting to force Damask to issue an apology written by the university’s marketing team. FIRE wrote an urgent letter on behalf of Damask, warning that the college’s actions posed a grave threat to Damask’s free speech and academic freedom. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and the chancellor of the Maricopa County Community College District apologized for Damask’s treatment. The end! 

Or it would be, except the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has now filed suit against Damask and MCCCD, claiming, among other things, that Damask’s controversial questions violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by “disapproving” of Islam. Meaning, criticism of Islam is not just unprotected speech but, when uttered by a government employee such as a professor at a public college, positively prohibited by the Establishment Clause.

I have been an atheist since seventh grade, but I'm somewhat unusual in my affection and interest in religion. I'm a staunch defender of religious liberty, I read lots of books on religion, and have great respect for religious people. I have also taught some constitutional law classes and, although it is my practice to be relatively respectful of religion, it is by no means a requirement that I do so, or a legal violation when I am not.

If the lawsuit prevails, and it becomes law that professors speaking critically of religion in class violate the Establishment Clause, the implications would be grave for atheist professors in particular, including people like Peter Boghossian, Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, and Richard Dawkins. Effectively, it would turn our Establishment Clause into something more like a blasphemy law for professors. 

This is a good time for me to plug my colleague Sarah McLaughlin’s Twitter account, as her job is to monitor international free-speech abuses, in no small part to teach people in the US how nasty some of these laws people think would be nice on campus look in practice. Just last month, a professor was arrested for blasphemy in Pakistan, where another academic was sentenced to death in December 2019 over a “blasphemous” social media post.

I am hopeful that this claim will go down in flames, but the fact that an organization is actually making it with a straight face should be of concern not just to my fellow atheists, but to anyone who has had a contrarian religious thought.

And that's practically everybody.

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