The law, called the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act — IFRA for short — has been in place since 1998. The original version established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a religious freedom watchdog that has charted abuses against Christians, Jews, Baha'is and other religious minorities in countries that include Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam.
The new version, named for a former Virginia congressman who championed the original model, specifically extends protection to atheists as well.
"(T)he freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs," the act states for the first time, "and the right not to profess or practice any religion."
It also condemns "specific targeting of non-theists, humanists, and atheists because of their beliefs," and enables the State Department to target "non-state actors" against religious freedom, like the Islamic State group, Boko Haram and other extra-government groups.
The new law has been heralded by both Christians and atheists. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called the legislation "a vital step toward protecting conscience freedom for millions of the world's most vulnerable, most oppressed people," while Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, called it "a significant step toward full acceptance and inclusion for non-religious individuals."
Getting the atheist language into the law was a four-year process, said Maggie Ardiente, communications director for AHA. In 2012, Ardiente and other atheist advocates met with members of the State Department to raise awareness of the persecution of nonbelievers. AHA legislative director Matthew Bulger took a seat — the first occupied by a representative from an nontheist organization — on the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, an informal group of religious leaders that consults with the State Department on religious liberty issues.
The AHA and other nontheist groups like American Atheists and Center for Inquiry have lobbied Congress on behalf of imprisoned and persecuted atheists in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and elsewhere for several years.
Atheists in those countries have faced imprisonment, lashings and execution, sometimes at the hands of violent mobs. In September, a Saudi man was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes for professing his atheism via Twitter.
The new version will strengthen the existing law in several ways:
• It directs the president to sanction individuals who carry out or order religious restrictions.
• It instructs the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to report directly to the U.S. secretary of state.
• It requires all foreign service officers to be trained in the "strategic value of international religious freedom."
Corbin said the new language in the IRFA could influence how U.S. courts regard atheists at home. All Americans are protected by the First Amendment, she said, but "there has always been controversy about the degree to which they (atheists) should be protected. This law makes clear they are to be protected to the same extent" as religious believers.
Corbin also links the president's signing of this act to another first.
"President Obama was the first president to explicitly acknowledge nonbelievers in his inaugural address, so this seems to fit into his legacy vis-a-vis nonbelievers," she said. "What the next administration is going to do with this law and nonbelievers is a completely different question."