A federal appeals court ruled Aug. 23 that the Pennsylvania House of Representatives may limit its opening invocations to theistic believers, a move that Americans United says elevates the rights of religious people over non-theists.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, AU says, is part of a troubling trend in the courts that not only dilutes separation of church and state but grants special privileges to people because they believe in a god.
"The court has permitted the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to discriminate based on religion against people who do not believe in a god," AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser told the Associated Press.
Americans United and American Atheists brought the case on behalf of a group of non-theist state residents who wanted to do something theistic believers do frequently: give guest invocations before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Officials at the House refused, and AU filed suit.
The court ruled 2-1 that the House could constitutionally turn away the non-theists, ruling in part that non-theistic people are not capable of meeting the goals of legislative prayer. Only believers in the divine can do that, the court said.
"[O]nly theistic prayer can satisfy all the traditional purposes of legislative prayer," wrote the court. "Second, the Supreme Court has long taken as given that prayer presumes invoking a higher power."
The court went on to say, "[A]s a matter of traditional practice, a petition to human wisdom and the power of science does not capture the full sense of 'prayer,' historically understood. At bottom, legislative prayers seek 'divine guidance' in lawmaking."
The court buttressed its argument by pointing to "historical practices." The U.S. Supreme Court used the same logic to permit a large cross to remain on public land in Bladensburg, Md., earlier this year.
Judge L. Felipe Restrepo dissented. Restrepo held that allowing the government to limit invocations to theists requires officials to wade into a theological thicket. Buddhism, he noted, has no concept of a personal god but is still considered a...