PA House Can Legally Block Atheists from Giving Invocations

 

Photo Credits: PA House of Representatives

On August 23, 2019 the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower-court decision and ruled that opening prayers for legislative sessions are limited to guest chaplains who believe either in God or a divine or higher power. That means the Pennsylvania House’s policy barring atheists from delivering invocations before legislative sessions is legal.

The controversial decision upholds a state House of Representatives policy that its opening invocations may only be given by "a member of a regularly established church or religious organization” or a sitting member of the House.

This all began 5 years ago when atheist Carl Silverman asked the Pennsylvania House of Representatives if he could deliver the opening invocation. He received a rejection letter that said “while the Court encouraged a diversity of prayer givers, we do not believe that government bodies are required to allow non-adherents or nonbelievers the opportunity to serve as chaplains.”

After all that happened, several members of the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, and Lancaster Freethought Society — supported by AU and American Atheists — filed a federal lawsuit in August of 2016 against Myer, current House Speaker Mike Turzai, and five other House members.

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“When governmental bodies open their meetings with invocations, no viewpoints should be excluded,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, [former] executive director of Americans United. “That includes people who do not believe in God. No one should be made to feel like a second-class citizen by their government.”

Federal court ruled about year ago - The Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ current guest chaplain policy facially violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The policy purposefully discriminates among invocation presenters on the basis of religion and thus exceeds the constitutional boundaries of legislative prayer.

The case was later appealed to the Third Circuit, and they issued a disturbing 2-1 decision overturning the earlier ruling.

Principally before us is whether the Pennsylvania House may intentionally exclude nontheists from offering prayers to open the legislative session. Because the House’s policy preferring theistic over nontheistic prayers fits squarely within the historical tradition of legislative prayer, we part with the District Court on this point and uphold the prayer policy.

"The court buttressed its argument by pointing to 'historical practices,'" Americans United said in its statement. "This is blind to the reality of modern-day America where increasing numbers of people are declaring themselves 'nones' — individuals who seek spirituality outside the confines of a house or worship or discard religion entirely."

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