How Upset Should We Be About the Notary Public Who Refused to Sign Documents for American Atheists?

When American Atheists’ Amanda Knief and Dave Silverman went to a local TD Bank branch in Cranford, New Jersey to get a few documents notarized — as they’d done many times before — they encountered an unusual obstacle, as Knief noted in a Facebook post:

A notary at a local bank, where I have gone more than a dozen times to have work documents signed, asked me to explain what we were having notarized. The documents were charitable organizations registrations for American Atheists in several states. So I told her what AA is about. She looked down, then looked at me and [American Atheists President] Dave Silverman and said she couldn’t sign the documents because of “personal reasons” and went to find another notary who was eating his lunch to come do the authentications.

I have been called names, threatened, hated on and all manner of ridiculed because of my atheist activism, but I think sitting in a bank and having another professional refuse to do business with me because I am an atheist was the worst slight I have ever received.

In New Jersey, notaries are not required to abide by any code of conduct or ethics that prevents them from refusing service to people based on “personal reasons.” Even though we had a valid, legal document and valid, legal identification — she was legally able to refuse me service.

TD Bank says it was a miscommunication and not at all a slight against atheists:

The entire issue was a misunderstanding that arose from the notary not understanding how to handle certain government documents, [TD Bank's vice president for public affairs Rebecca] Acevedo said.

“Our employee did not understand how to process this particular paperwork and needed help that, unfortunately, led to the miscommunication,” Acevedo said.

The employee has not been disciplined, she said.

It’s hard for me to get all that worked up about this. Even if we dismiss the idea that it was an honest miscommunication, which I’m tempted to do since these weren’t exactly unusual documents for a notary public to sign, it’s entirely possible the employee was caught in a personal conflict (is it against my faith if I indirectly help promote atheism?) and just handled it the wrong way. That doesn’t make it okay — just as it wouldn’t have been acceptable if we were talking about a Christian or Muslim group — but we should be paying more attention to whether this was a one-time bad decision by a single employee or part of some ongoing trend. As far as I can tell, it’s the former — and there’s no real evidence of this being explicitly about the atheism. (Keep in mind we don’t even know if the employee is a Christian.)

That said, it’s worth noting that even if the employee didn’t break any laws, she did go against the Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility:

The Notary shall not refuse to perform a lawful and proper notarial act because of the signer’s race, nationality, ethnicity, citizenship, religion, politics, lifestyle, age, disability, gender or sexual orientation, or because of disagreement with the statements or purpose of a lawful document.

If it happens again, I’d definitely want some more answers. But considering that the bank took care of the issue immediately (the Raw Story’s headline is simply inaccurate), it’s something AA should take note of, document, and move on from. No one needs to protest the bank or move their funds somewhere else, as some commenters online have suggested, but the branch manager should let all the employees know that this sort of customer treatment will not be tolerated. I think AA is taking the right step by “drafting proposed legislation” to prevent this sort of situation from happening again.

The whole debacle is very different from, say, a pharmacist who issues a blanket statement that he won’t be giving out birth control pills. If the bank employee continues to refuse to work with atheist clients, then we have a problem — and I’m all for AA testing that premise the next time they go to get documents notarized — but that hasn’t happened. Not yet.

Until then, TD Bank would be wise to make some lemonade from the lemon. Offer American Atheists some special service(s) that they wouldn’t get otherwise. Show them how they’re valued customers. Promise them it won’t happen again and then deliver.

But we’re supposed to be the rational, level-headed ones. Let’s not jump to conclusions and call for the employee’s head without more information first.

***Update***: American Atheists has issued a public statement about this controversy here:

“The bank has said that this is a ‘misunderstanding,’” [President David] Silverman said. “The easiest way for [notary public Rute] Gandarez and TD Bank to show us this is a misunderstanding is to demonstrate that to us. If Ms. Gandarez misspoke, she can apologize for this, express in her own words that she did not understand how to process the paperwork, and offer to notarize documents for us personally in the future.

“At the corporate level,” Silverman continued, “TD Bank makes strong claims about valuing diversity as part of its corporate culture: TD Bank, this is your chance to do the right thing. Discrimination is never acceptable. Show us this is not about bigotry and we will believe you.”

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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