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Cheryl Kolbe: ‘Protect all nonbelievers’ from discrimination

The following is the testimony given by Cheryl Kolbe to the Portland, Ore., City Council on Feb. 13 regarding an ordinance that would protect nonbelievers from discrimination.

At the Feb. 13 Portland, Ore., City Council meeting, FFRF – Portland chapter President Cheryl Kolbe speaks about the need for a nondiscrimination ordinance for nonbelievers.

Good morning, my name is Cheryl Kolbe, president and founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation — Portland area chapter and I am a director on its national board. FFRF is a nonprofit organization of nonbelievers that works to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism. It has more than 31,000 members. In Oregon, there are over 1,000 members, including many who live or work in Portland.

I am like all of you in many respects. I value freedom and my family. I believe in compassion, public service, kindness and consideration of all. I believe all communities should be welcoming to all people. I differ from many in that I simply lack a belief in a god or gods. What I don’t believe is that this one factor, being a nonbeliever, is justification for discrimination. The ordinance before you would protect all nonbelievers in the city of Portland.

At present, neither the city or the state expressly prohibits discrimination based on nonbelief, leaving it open to the courts to determine if nonbelief is protected. Even though existing Oregon courts have thus far ruled that nonbelief is protected, some courts across the country have ruled in the opposite direction. In the real world, opinions change, judges are replaced. This should not be left to the interpretation of the courts.

I wish to be very clear. The question isn’t about which is right or better — religion or nonbelief. It is about protection against discrimination.  We are not asking for any special rights or privileges. We are merely asking for the same protections against discrimination in housing, employment and accommodations that are afforded to those in a religion.

I own my own home, am retired, and am fortunate to not need any accommodations. So why am I passionate about this? For me, this change is a validation that I am a human being of the same value to society as my fellow Portland community members. It says: My city values me and affirms that it is unacceptable for others to discriminate against me and others like me. Validation matters to me.

What does it mean to others? It means they would have the backing of the law. They will know their rights. Legally, they cannot be rejected for a job, fired or treated any differently than other employees solely based on their nonbelief. Their rental application or request for accommodations can’t be rejected simply because they are irreligious.

As a nonbeliever, I am not alone. According to a 2015 study, Portland is the most religiously unaffiliated metro area in the nation. This will positively impact many people in Portland.

This change is supported by Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanists of Greater Portland, Secular Coalition for Oregon, Center for Inquiry for both Portland and Southeast Portland and Protect Our Children.

This action will show Portland as a leader. To the best of my knowledge, Portland would be the second city in the country to make this clarification. This change says that Portland chooses to make certain that nonbelievers receive the same protection from discrimination as those in any form of religion. This is very affirming for those of us who are atheist, agnostic or any other form of nonbelief. It is the right thing to do.

I wish to express my deep appreciation to all who have been involved in this project — the ACLU for partnering with FFRF, Commissioner Fritz’s office for taking up this issue and for the excellent work by the Human Rights Commission. And I thank the City Council for taking the time today for this issue.