Why We’re Seeking Equal Treatment For Non-Theistic Invocations In The Pennsylvania House Of Representatives

By Brian Fields

Editor’s note: This post was written by Brian Fields of Pennsylvania, one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a case that is being litigated by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and American Atheists. In addition to the five people mentioned here, other plaintiffs include these organizations: the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, the Dillsburg Area Freethinkers and the Lancaster Freethought Society. The case is scheduled to be argued Wednesday before Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Click here to learn more about the case.

A couple years ago, when some colleagues and I first began requesting the opportunity to deliver an invocation to Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, we didn’t realize it would be such an uphill battle to offer a few encouraging words to our elected officials.

I didn’t anticipate we’d repeatedly be turned down due to our secular beliefs. And I certainly didn’t expect that we’d face a court battle with the very people we were attempting to encourage.

But on Wednesday a Harrisburg courtroom is where I’ll find myself, asking a federal judge to give us an opportunity to occasionally offer non-theistic invocations to state legislators.

My fellow plaintiffs – Joshua Neiderhiser, Scott Rhoades, Paul Tucker and Deana Weaver – and I may use different words to describe our personal theological views: atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker, nonbeliever, secular, etc. Generally speaking, we don’t believe in or are skeptical of the existence of a monotheistic god.

But we do believe in core American values: justice, equality, community, diversity, morality, striving to make this a better world and rationally studying issues to make decisions and reach compromises.

We think these are values that most Americans – religious and non-religious alike – hold in high esteem, and they are the kinds of values we would reference during the remarks we’d like to deliver.

Individually, we first began reaching out to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 2014, asking to give one of the invocations that often open each of its daily sessions. Former representative Samuel Smith, who was Speaker of the House at the time, sent us a letter stating “non-adherents and nonbelievers” were not permitted to give invocations.

We believe this is discriminatory and unconstitutional – it tells us government is favoring certain religious beliefs and treating secular people like us as second-class citizens. And considering recent research that shows nearly a quarter of Americans don’t affiliate with any religion, that’s a lot of second-class citizens.

Residents should have an opportunity to deliver secular invocations to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

So we persisted and, with the assistance of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and American Atheists, we continued to press the House to allow secular invocations. While the Pennsylvania Senate showed respect for the state’s nonbelievers by allowing Deana Weaver to deliver secular remarks in April 2015, the House continues to reject us. In fact, in January 2015, the House altered its rules to permit only representatives or members of an “established church or religious organization” to offer the opening invocation.

Having exhausted all other efforts to get the House to change its discriminatory policy, Americans United and American Atheists filed a lawsuit on our behalf last August against the Speaker of the House, its Parliamentarian and our state representatives.

We’re not trying to get the House to end invocations before its daily sessions. A 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, confirms that governmental bodies have the right to open their meetings with prayers and invocations. But that same court decision says government cannot discriminate or have a bias against minority faiths when deciding who gives the invocations.

Nor are we trying to make all House invocations nontheistic. We’d just like to see our elected representatives and their opening invocations acknowledge the diversity of beliefs found in Pennsylvania – a commonwealth founded as a haven for religious dissenters.

Our research indicates that of the nearly 600 invocations given during state House sessions from January 2008 to February 2016, only one could be identified as associated with a religion other than Christianity, Judaism or Islam (it was a Native American prayer given by a Christian House member).

The secular prayers we’d offer would not disparage any religion. Invocations are meant to unite, not divide. They’re intended to solemnize a proceeding and to ask participants to be mindful of their responsibilities to the people as they make important decisions that impact us all.

Members of the House hear theistic invocations most days. All my colleagues and I are asking for is the same right to occasionally deliver non-theistic remarks. We seek nothing more than equal treatment, and I hope the court tomorrow understands that.