The Pennsylvania House of Representatives has a policy of soliciting guest speakers to open its sessions with invocations. Over the years, members have heard from lots of Christian speakers and occasionally adherents of other faith traditions, but there's one thing they're not getting: nontheistic invocations.
It's not because of a lack of volunteers. Indeed, several nonbelievers in the state have stepped forward and offered to deliver a nontheistic invocation. But the House leadership has decided they don't want to hear from those folks. In fact, they put a policy in place that specifies that invited chaplains must be "a member of a regularly established church or religious organization," a restriction that was intended to support the House's exclusion of nontheistic speakers.
To many people, that sounds like discrimination. And, thanks to Americans United, the House has been ordered to end its exclusionary conduct.
On Aug. 29, a federal court issued an important ruling in a case brought by Americans United and its allies challenging the invocation policies of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner held that the House's invocation policy "purposefully discriminates among invocation presenters on the basis of religion and thus exceeds the constitutional boundaries of legislative prayer."
Americans United welcomed the decision.
"Government's first duty is to treat all citizens equally, regardless of what they may believe or not believe about religion," said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. "Pennsylvania's House of Representatives failed in that task, and we're glad the court has set them straight."
Conner was not swayed by arguments that nontheists can't perform the secular function of solemnizing a meeting. In his ruling the judge ob served, "[M]any legislative bodies across this nation have opened with nontheistic invocations, and there is no evidence that such prayers fared worse than their theistic counterparts at fulfilling [solemnizing] purposes."
The lawsuit, Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, got started in 2014 after nontheists in the Keystone State submitted requests to offer guest invocations before the state's lower house. After being turned down, they contacted Americans United and American Atheists for help.
The two organizations tried to resolve the matter outside of court by writing to House officials, advising them that their...