America's Courts have a fundamental flaw that virtually guarantees bias against Atheists.
Not long ago, I was swindled by a thief who was selling stuff and not delivering. My wife is quite the internet sleuth, and managed to track the guy down, and we hauled his ass into Small Claims Court.
When you get to the courtroom, the first thing the bailiff does is to ask all the parties to sit down and see if they can reach an agreement without the judge. A lot of times people know they're in the wrong and will settle rather than face the judge. In our case, it was instantly apparent that our opponent was a total snake, one of those guys who lies even when there's no reason to. He said things to me that he knew were false, and I knew were false, and that he knew that I knew were false! And he did it with a straight face.
The worst-case scenario for a judge is when there is no concrete evidence – no contract, no receipt, no emails, just a handshake, and the two parties with the opposite version of what that handshake meant. Plainly one or the other is lying, but which one? The judge has to simply guess, based on intuition, reputation, looks, and whether one of the parties' story has the "ring of truth." I didn't envy the judge.
As I watched the judge settle a couple of cases, my hopes rose. He was pretty good. He found sensible compromises, he spotted holes on peoples' stories, and he seemed to have a good sense of fairness and justice. But when my turn came, I suddenly realized I had a big problem.
The bailiff called our case. We walked forward, and the judge said, "Raise your right hands. Do you swear that the evidence you are going to present this Court is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" I was like a deer caught in the headlights. In an instant, a hundred stories and statistics were spinning through my head. Atheists are America's least-trusted group according to many surveys. Atheists don't deserve the rights of citizenship according to President Bush (the elder). Separation of Church and State was invented by the Devil according to Rev. Jerry Falwell and his flock.
Unfortunately, I have this flaw that may kill me some day: I'm honest. "Your honor, I'm an Atheist." This pretty much stopped everything. The Court's clerk, who had been chatting quietly with the bailiff, stopped mid-sentence and looked up. Various other plaintiffs and defendants, who had been reading, whispering amongst themselves, or dozing, were suddenly paying attention. Even the judge's normal composed, scholarly demeanor was momentarily lost.
The defendant, my lying opponent, quickly jumped in, and in a very loud voice, said, "I swear, so help me God." The Judge regained his composure, and turned to me. "Do you swear that the evidence you are going to present this Court is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" And he sort of stopped with an awkward pause, the sentence seemingly incomplete. I could only fill in the silence with a firm, "I do."
I lost the case. The liar lied to the judge, and I told the truth, and the liar got away with my money. Was it because I'm an Atheist? I'll never know. I believe that the Judge, a man who has dedicated his life to the study of law, and to the principles of fairness and justice, was able to put aside his prejudices. I believe that his decision was wrong simply because my opponent was such a good liar. But ... sometimes I wonder.
And I also wonder why, over two hundred years after this country established a wall of separation between church and state, a citizen who happens to be an atheist has to be "outed," to declare his/her religious beliefs, before being heard by the Court.