HARRISBURG, Pa. – A federal judge has halted the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ policy banning people who don’t believe in God from giving the invocations made at the start of each day’s legislative floor session.
U.S. Middle District Judge Christopher Conner on Wednesday sided with atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and humanists who challenged the policy that has limited the opening prayers to those who believe in God or a divine or higher power.
Conner said the restrictions on who may serve as guest chaplain violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on making laws that establish a religion.
The judge said Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai, whose office manages the guest chaplains, has denied the people and groups who challenged the policy the ability to give an invocation “due solely to the nontheistic nature of their beliefs.”
“In light of this nation’s vastly diverse religious tapestry, there is no justification to sanction government’s establishment of a category of favored religions – like monotheistic or theistic faiths – through legislative prayer,” Conner wrote .
He said it was “the content of the prayers, rather than their theistic or nontheistic nature, that matters.”
Turzai and the other defendants had argued the Establishment Clause was not violated because they allowed people of different faiths to give the invocation, so no one religion was being favored.
A spokesman for the House Republican caucus said the decision will be appealed.
The head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which helped represent the plaintiffs, said the case was about government treating all citizens alike, no matter their religious beliefs or lack of belief.
“Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives failed in that task, and we’re glad the court has set them straight,” said Americans United chief executive Rachel Laser.
The lawsuit said 575 of the 678 House sessions over eight years started with an invocation. Non-lawmakers delivered it 265 times: 238 were Christian clergy, 23 were rabbis, three were in the Muslim tradition and one was not affiliated with a religion and gave a monotheistic prayer.
In recent years, there have been two that were not Christian or Jewish – a Sikh in 2017 and a Native American invocation by a Christian House member in 2015, Conner said.
The plaintiffs said they did not plan to disparage any faith and instead wanted to give an uplifting message, as one of them has done before the start of a Pennsylvania Senate session.
The state House maintained a permanent chaplain to give the opening invocation from 1865 until 1994. Guest chaplains were involved after that, and in 2004 they or incumbent state representatives would open the session. About a decade ago, the House began to invite guest chaplains or have the prayer made by lawmakers.
Then-Speaker Sam Smith, a Republican, denied a request in 2014 by a member of the Dillsburg Area Free Thinkers to give the invocation, and House rules were subsequently amended to dictate that all guest chaplains must be “a member of a regularly established church or religious organization” or a sitting member of the House. The plaintiffs sued in August 2016.
The lawsuit also challenged coercion by House staff to get people to stand during the opening invocation. That policy has since been changed to make standing optional. Conner said the former policy was not constitutional but it passes muster under the changes.