Magazine article Church & State

Americans United Lawsuit Challenges Pa. House of Representatives Policy Limiting Invocations to Believers

Magazine article Church & State

Americans United Lawsuit Challenges Pa. House of Representatives Policy Limiting Invocations to Believers

Article excerpt

When Deana Weaver, a member of Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, asked to deliver a non-theistic message before a meeting of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, she was told no.

"My state representative and the House leadership refused to allow me to deliver an opening invocation to the House because I do not believe in a deity," Weaver said in a recent interview with Americans United. "This makes me feel that I am not being represented in the House on account of my beliefs concerning religion." Scott Rhoades, a certified Humanist celebrant and president of Lancaster Freethought Society, asked to offer a secular invocation before the House but was denied that opportunity as well.

"I was made to feel like a second-class citizen when I was denied the same rights that other clergy are allowed to exercise," the Lancaster resident told Americans United.

The Pennsylvania House has a longstanding tradition of opening its deliberations with invocations, which are often delivered by guests from the community. But a recently adopted policy states that invited chaplains must be members of an established house of worship or religious group a rule the House's leadership has used to justify discrimination against atheists and other non-believers.

In fact, the House has refused to permit non-theists such as Weaver and Rhoades to open meetings of the body on the grounds that they are "non-adherents or nonbelievers."

Given this deliberate exclusion, Americans United and American Atheists (AA) filed suit Aug. 25 on behalf of Weaver and Rhoades, as well as Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, its president Brian Fields, and member Joshua Neiderhiser. Its chief organizer, Paul Tucker, Dillsburg Area Freethinkers and Lancaster Freethought Society (an organization led by Rhoades) are also plaintiffs in the case challenging the lawmakers' prayer practice.

The lawsuit, Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, argues that barring people who do not believe in God from offering pre-meeting invocations is unconstitutional.

Although the Pennsylvania House has long opened its sessions with an official invocation, it did not adopt a policy aimed at excluding non-theists until recently. Notably, this change came after several non-theists asked to address the legislative body with an invocation.

Since Jan. 6, 2015, House General Operating Rule 17 has provided that " [t]he Chaplain offering the prayer shall be a member of a regularly established church or religious organization or shall be a member of the House of Representatives," a policy that is intended to exclude anyone with a secular outlook.

AU believes this policy runs afoul of the First Amendment in light of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The high court said in an Americans United-sponsored case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, that local governments have the right to open their meetings with official prayers--even if those prayers are predominantly Christian.

But the high court also said that governing bodies must "maintain ... a policy of nondiscrimination" when selecting invocation speakers, and that official policies of selection cannot "reflect an aversion or bias ... against minority faiths." Thus "a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation."

The Pennsylvania House, AU asserts, is not respecting the parameters of that ruling by refusing to allow non-theistic invocations.

What would a secular invocation say? It would be a call for inclusion and tolerance of all viewpoints.

Lead plaintiff Fields provided this example to Americans United: "Our commonwealth was founded on the principles of tolerance, respect and equality. As we gather, let us fully consider each citizen of this commonwealth as equals in the eyes of the law. May reason and rationality guide our decisions, and may those decisions be considered to be in the best interests of all of us. …

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