I wrote a little bit last night about an incident that happened yesterday that I found somewhat disturbing.
Greta Christina recently posted on Alternet and on her own blog a piece titled “4 Reasons Atheists Have to Fight for Their Rights.” I have, admittedly, become increasingly critical of organized, activist atheism over the last couple of years, and so I responded to the piece with my opinion that what Greta presented was essentially a straw man argument that dismantles criticisms that almost no one is making. Greta responded in turn, taking issue with what I said and accusing me of being uninformed, specifically in regard to my skepticism of allegations of discrimination against atheists in child custody cases, and suggesting that I had not bothered to read the links she included in her piece.
I of course had clicked the links, and the link that she included about the child custody issue was to a piece that I have seen floating around the atheist blogosphere for as long as I have been reading atheist blogs. It’s not something that I thought to question very much, even as recently as a year or two ago, but the allegations that atheist parents are denied child custody simply for being atheists are claims that I have become increasingly skeptical of, although I had not before now actually read the court cases that are cited in the Volokh Conspiracy post.
I explained in my final comment at Greta Christina’s blog that my issue was less a matter of necessarily disbelieving the possibility of this sort of discrimination happening and more a matter of being unwilling to accept simplistic claims (e.g. “I lost my kids just because I’m an atheist”) about child custody cases, in which court decisions are complex and based on a number of different factors. At this point, Greta Christina accused me of not arguing in good faith and of being unreasonably skeptical in the face of what she presented as incontrovertible evidence–in her words:
“documentation of judges explicitly stating that they were granting custody to the religious parent and denying it to the atheist parent, and explicitly stating that they were dong so because the atheist parent was an atheist.”
Now, having read the post at The Volokh Conspiracy, I knew that the explicit statements Greta was talking about could not be found there. It’s simply an overview of the issue, the opinions of the author, and a long list of court cases (without links to the actual court documents) purported to support the thesis. Namely, that courts regularly discriminate against less religious and non-religious parents in favor of religious ones–not, as Greta Christina claims, that atheist parents are routinely denied custody simply because of their atheism. This may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but it’s an important nuance that was not found in either Greta Christina’s original post or in her response to my comments.
The 2005 post at The Volokh Conspiracy cites the following cases as examples of “discrimination against the irreligious or less religious”:
- Blevins v. Bardwell, 784 So. 2d 166, 175 (Miss. 2001)
- Staggs v. Staggs, 2005 WL 1384525 (Miss. App.)
- Brekeen v. Brekeen, 880 So. 2d 280, 282 (Miss. 2004)
- Turner v. Turner, 824 So. 2d 652, 655-56 (Miss. App. 2002)
- Pacheco v. Pacheco, 770 So. 2d 1007, 1011 (Miss. App. 2000)
- Weigand v. Houghton, 730 So.2d 581 (Miss. 1999)
- Johnson v. Gray, 859 So. 2d 1006, 1014-15 (Miss. 2003)
- McLemore v. McLemore, 762 So. 2d 316 (Miss. 2000)
- Hodge v. Hodge, 188 So. 2d 240 (Miss. 1966)
- Johns v. Johns, 918 S.W.2d 728 (Ark. App. 1996)
- Ark. Sup. Ct. admin. order no. 15 (enacted 1999)
- Peacock v. Peacock, 903 So.2d 506, 513-14 (La. App. 2005)
- Pahal v. Pahal, 606 So. 2d 1359, 1362 (La. App. 1992)
- Ulvund v. Ulvund, 2000 WL 33407372 (Mich. App.)
- Mackenzie v. Cram, 1998 WL 1991050 (Mich. App.)
- Jimenez v. Jimenez, 1996 WL 33347958 (Mich. App.)
- Johnston v. Plessel, 2004 WL 384143 (Minn. Ct. App.)
- In re Storlein, 386 N.W.2d 812 (Minn. Ct. App. 1986)
- McAlister v. McAlister, 747 A.2d 390, 393 (Pa. Super. 2000)
- Thomas v. Thomas, 739 A.2d 206, 213 (Pa. Super. 1999)
- Gancas v. Schultz, 683 A.2d 1207 (Pa. Super. 1996)
- Scheeler v. Rudy, 2 Pa. D. & C. 3d 772, 780 (Com. Pl. 1977)
- Shainwald v. Shainwald, 395 S.E.2d 441, 446 (S.C. App. 1990)
- Hulm v. Hulm, 484 N.W.2d 303, 305 & n.* (S.D. 1992)
- In re Davis, 30 S.W.3d 609 (Tex. Ct. App. 2000)
- Snider v. Grey, 688 S.W.2d 602, 611 (Tex. Ct. App. 1985)
- In re F.J.K., 608 S.W.2d 301 (Tex. Ct. App. 1980)
- In re Marriage of Moorhead, 224 N.W.2d 242, 244 (Iowa 1974)
- Ahlman v. Ahlman, 267 N.W.2d 521, 523 (Neb. 1978)
- Dean v. Dean, 232 S.E.2d 470, 471-72 (N.C. App. 1977)
- Robert O. v. Judy E., 90 Misc.2d 439, 442 (N.Y. Fam. Ct. 1977)
I have now finished reading, and I will be writing to discuss each of these decisions over the next few days, with the exception of the two I was unable to find court documents for.
What I have found so far confirms to my satisfaction that my skepticism was not unreasonable as Greta Christina claimed. Moreover, in not a single one of these cases is there anything resembling explicit language that would indicate that any parent was denied custody as a result of their atheism. Indeed, the majority of these cases do not involve atheist parents at all, and to characterize them the way Greta Christina did–as clear and obvious evidence of discrimination that I was just stubbornly ignoring–is at best ignorant and at worst downright dishonest.
Fortunately, court records are public and easy enough to Google. I’m looking forward to going through this list, and I believe it will show that, at least when based on the cases presented here, discrimination against non-believers is grossly exaggerated to the extent that it exists at all and based primarily on cherry picking damning quotes and removing them from their appropriate context in order to prove a point that is simply not supported when one reads the entire documents.