The Pennsylvania House of Representatives policy allowing guest chaplains to pray before legislative meetings was struck down as unconstitutional by a United States District Court judge, who ruled that atheists can now give invocations because the old policy discriminated on the basis of religion.
Blessings and prayers for God’s guidance are not the only things that will now be called upon before lawmakers convene in the Keystone State.
“For years, Pennsylvania’s lower legislative house has had an invocation policy in place that allows for guest chaplains who are ordained clergy or members of the legislative body to give opening prayers before meetings,” The Christian Post (CP) reported. “Americans United for Separation of Church & State (AUSCS) – which along with American Atheists and a few other secular groups – filed the lawsuit in August 2016 against Pennsylvania over the policy.”
Atheist prayers … really?
U.S. District Court Judge Christopher C. Conner of the Middle District of Pennsylvania stated in his decision that the existing prayer policy was biased against atheists desiring to pronounce secular invocations before the legislative body.
“The Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ current guest chaplain policy facially violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Conner concluded in his ruling posted on AUSCS’s site. “The House’s selection process invites members of the public to serve as guest chaplains, but draws a qualifying line of demarcation between theistic and nontheistic belief systems.”
The atheist-sympathizing judge contended that one of the Pennsylvania House’s pre-2017 opening invocation practices stood in violation to the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
“[Having visitors stand during the prayer and] thereby participate in a religious exercise [is unconstitutional],” Connor continued – noting that voluntary standing was acceptable. “Requiring visitors to stand and having Sergeants at Arms repeatedly and loudly direct consciously seated visitors to comply with the Speaker’s request to stand amounts to an unconstitutional level of coercion.”
AUSCS Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser – who has served as lead counsel in the case – celebrated the ruling.
“[I am] pleased the court has put an end to it,” Luchenitser declared in an AUSCS press release. “The Pennsylvania House of Representatives should fully welcome all Pennsylvanians – including nontheists – as legislators conduct business on behalf of the people. Instead, the House’s practice of barring residents who don’t believe in God from offering invocations created an atmosphere of exclusion and religious disfavor that was both discriminatory and unconstitutional.”
Atheists win longstanding battle
The courtroom invocation debate in Pennsylvania started back in August 2014, when two members of atheist groups presented requests to give secular invocations before a House session – both of which were swiftly denied.
“Samuel H. Smith – who served as House Speaker at the time – rejected their requests, arguing that the House was not ‘required to allow non-adherents or nonbelievers the opportunity to serve as chaplains,’” CP’s Michael Gryboski recounted. “When the lawsuit was filed, a spokesman for House Speaker Mike Turzai defended the practice of having only ordained clergy or members of the House give invocations.”
Two years later, in 2016, Turzai’s spokesman pointed to a ruling issued by the nation’s highest court in 2014 that backed Pennsylvania’s invocation rule.
“We believe our rule and policy comports with the Constitution and is consistent with long history of legislative prayer as recognized by the various Supreme Court (SCOTUS) cases,” the spokesman expressed at the time, according to The Huffington Post.
The SCOTUS decision clearly stated that town meetings in the state of New York could begin expressly with Christian prayers – provided one stipulation …
”In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in Town of Greece v. Galloway that a New York town could open meetings with explicitly Christian prayers – provided other religious groups were not barred from giving invocations,” Gryboski recounted.
SCOTUS Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed this out as he read the high court’s majority opinion that year.
“[L]egislative prayer – while religious in nature – has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause,” Kennedy read from the opinion, according to CP. “As practiced by Congress since the framing of the Constitution, legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.”
Atheists gleaning from LGBT’s ‘inclusion’ campaign?
Atheists and Satanists have upped their game in the justice system by using the “inclusion” argument that has brought the LGBT community success in the courtroom to win battles spanning everything from same-sex “marriage” to transgender bathroom “rights” – in the name of so-called “equality” and “civil rights.”
“Satanists have even seen victories in the campaign for inclusion and have recently delivered invocations in Pensacola, Florida, and Soldotna, Alaska,” The Huffington Post’s Nick Wing pointed out. “Nonbelievers in Pennsylvania say theirs is the latest fight for full equality and acceptance of all Americans.”
Pennsylvania Nonbelievers President Brian Fields – a plaintiff in the Pennsylvania case – is savvy to the “equality” argument – using it to challenge Christianity while insisting that atheists have the same desire to pray for guidance and blessings – just as recognized world religions do.
“To say that theists can do this but nontheists cannot is quite clearly discrimination, but it also sends a message to the nontheist community that our voice doesn’t matter – that our point of view doesn’t matter,” Fields told The Huffington Post. “It reinforces religious ideas that nontheists don’t have a say when it comes to morality. For us, this is an opportunity to present another point of view, to say, ‘Hey, look, we’re in this together.’”
With the recent ruling, many Pennsylvanians are wondering why – all of a sudden over the past decade – there is a problem with a Christian practice that has endured and blessed residents throughout the state for 300 years.
“Sessions of the Pennsylvania House have been opening with prayer for more than three centuries – according to PennLive – and a look at the recent history of the practice suggests the legislature hasn’t done much to foster diversity, Wing informed. “In the period from Jan. 8, 2008, through Feb. 9, 2016, the plaintiffs found records of 575 invocations – 265 of which were delivered by guests. Of these, they documented 23 instances of Jewish rabbis giving prayers, three invocations given in the Muslim tradition and just one where the religious affiliation of the guest was not stated. All of the invocations over this period were monotheistic in nature.”