Why We're In Court: Plaintiffs Seek Equal Treatment For Non-Theists In Pennsylvania

Editor’s Note: Today Americans United and American Atheists filed a lawsuit challenging the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ invocation policy, which excludes non-theistic voices. Three of the plaintiffs in the case, Brian Fields, Deana Weaver and Scott Rhoades, recently took part in a Q&A and explained what motivated them to get involved in this litigation.

Q. Tell us a bit about your work for the community and the local organizations you’re affiliated with.

Brian Fields: I am the president of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, central Pennsylvania’s largest group of atheists, agnostics and humanists. I also co-chair the Secular Coalition for Pennsylvania, a legislative-advocacy group focused on defending the rights of secular Pennsylvanians in Harrisburg. I was just recently involved in forming a new organization called the Pennsylvania Freethought Organization Coalition, of which I am currently serving as president. The PAFTO Coalition is working to help freethought groups in Pennsylvania have resources to get started and to grow.

Deana Weaver: I was a co-founder of Carroll Citizens for Sensible Growth (2003-2013). We have been awarded recognition at the local, state and federal levels for watershed and roadway removal of trash and debris. This activity evolved into CCSG providing assistance to residents in the region, helping with cleanup activities to avoid fines and fees, understanding local ordinances and communicating with municipalities.

I volunteered for local fire companies, running responder support activities, hall reservations and fundraising efforts from 2005-15. I am also the event coordinator for Dillsburg’s New Year’s Eve Pickle Drop and the PickleFest Arts & Crafts Street Fair (2009 to present).

I have served my country and my community, as a soldier in the Army, a jurist, a taxpayer and community volunteer. I have fed the poor, taught elementary classes, coached baseball, organized youth summer programs, served on nonprofit boards, coordinate two annual community events and serve on my township’s zoning hearing board. I have rescued animals and I am regularly the first person that local residents contact when they have problems with their municipality. I have been a volunteer for the state Department of Environmental Protection, testing the quality and health of our local watersheds.

Yet, I am made to feel like a victim of “taxation without representation.”

Scott Rhoades: I am founder and president of the Lancaster Freethought Society (LFS), a local community for freethinkers. As a group, we do civic-minded activities such as regular highway cleanups, supporting LGBT rights, “Ask an Atheist” events meant to answer questions the public may have for us, as well as discussion meetings, dinner-and-drink nights, brunches and other activities that are open to the public to participate in.

I am also a co-chair of and do legislative advocacy for the Secular Coalition of Pennsylvania. In addition, I am a member of the Humanist Society and a Humanist Celebrant. As a Humanist Celebrant, I am legally considered clergy and officiate many weddings each year.

I, along with Brian Fields from Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, also founded and have been an executive director of the Pennsylvania State Atheist/Humanist Conference since 2012. After our last conference, we held a service project that resulted in speakers and guests packing over 30,000 meals for the hungry. I further recently helped get Lancaster Atheists Helping the Homeless (AHH) up and running. An LFS member is leading this initiative to help feed and clothe the homeless population in and around Lancaster. I plan on being very involved in Lancaster AHH as well.

Pennsylvania Plaintiffs (from left): Rhoades, Weaver and Fields

Q. Tell us a bit about the discrimination you faced at the State House.

Fields: I was horrified when the House decided that atheists have nothing to say when it comes to offering words to the representatives gathered to form the laws for our state. I also remember sitting in the gallery in the House when we were ordered from the floor to stand for prayers we didn’t believe in.

Weaver: 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. This makes me feel that I am not being represented in the House on account of my beliefs concerning religion. And my state representative has only reinforced this by repeatedly voting with religious conservatives on issues such as the Day of Prayer, Year of the Bible, HB 1948 (restricting access to abortion), and HB 1728 (mandatory display of “In God We Trust” at schools, later passed as HB 1640, allowing such displays).

Rhoades: I was made to feel like a second-class citizen when I was denied the same rights that other clergy are allowed to exercise. I think Humanists and other non-theists should be able to participate in offering invocations before the start of House sessions, but the discrimination goes deeper than that. I am legally considered clergy due to my celebrancy through the Humanist Society, but I am not afforded the same rights to speak before the House as other clergy are. My constitutional rights were further violated when the House Speaker and a House guard pressured me to stand up for a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Q. What made you decide to contact Americans United and American Atheists about your situation?

Fields: We felt it was clear that our rights were being violated, and Americans United and American Atheists have a history of standing up for all of our freedoms when it comes to protecting the separation of church and state. We felt that AU and AA were ideally positioned to represent us well.

Weaver: After I read some press coverage about the Chaplains of the Day who open meetings of the Pennsylvania legislature, I wondered why a freethinker like me couldn’t serve as a chaplain too. I contacted the state House and Senate, in order to apply to serve as Chaplain of the Day. The Senate welcomed my participation, and I was allowed to give an invocation. But the House told me I was unworthy to serve because I don’t believe in a god.

Rhoades: Americans United has a long history of both protecting religious freedom and working towards maintaining the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. AU has both religious and non-religious members and seeks to protect everyone’s right to worship or not worship however they want without a governmental endorsement of one particular faith. American Atheists similarly has a long history of fighting for the rights of non-believers. I felt that AU and AA were the perfect vehicles to pursue this exercise in civil justice and I’m proud to be represented by them.

Q. Why do you think it’s important for non-theistic people to be allowed to deliver invocations at government meetings?

Fields: Too often it feels that others believe that non-theistic people have nothing to say about morality or about social concerns because they feel that those concerns are only relevant in the context of God-belief. For our secular government to reinforce that belief is disquieting, and I hope they recognize that as citizens of this state we too have something valuable to offer.

Weaver: Any government legislation or interaction with the public must allow for application to or participation by any and all of the government’s constituency. Anything less is discrimination and oppression.

I deserve to be judged by the quality of my performance and contribution to my community. It has been an insult, and certainly discriminatory, to have been judged and disregarded by the elected officials of the state House of Representatives, who are duty-bound to represent the interests of ALL of their constituency, not just the ones who have “acceptable” religious beliefs.

Rhoades: We have a pluralistic society, so when invocations are given, a plurality of views should be allowed to be expressed through those invocations. Non-theistic people represent a large segment of the general public and potential voters, and I think it’s important to let those citizens know that their lawmakers care about their religious freedom as much as they do for their Christian constituents. By not allowing non-theistic invocations, the House is sending a message to these citizens that they are considered second-class at best and their representatives are hostile towards them at worst. No citizen should have fewer rights than another citizen just because they don’t share the lawmaker’s belief system.

Q. What’s a secular invocation?  Can you give us an example?

Fields: A secular opening to a governmental meeting invokes authorities or principles such as the U.S. Constitution, the power of the people, democracy, equality, inclusion, reason, cooperation, fairness, justice, and the greater good.  I would like to deliver an invocation such as the following:

          Thank you for inviting me to speak today.

          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.

          We are a commonwealth of many different people working together.  We are a commonwealth of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, agnostics, atheists and many, many others.  We may disagree in many respects, but we can all agree here that our laws are the foundation of our civil society.  To that end, I ask that those gathered here today remember that the reason that society works is the fair and judicious application of those laws discussed here.

          To close, I would like to offer the words of Albert Einstein: “Nothing truly valuable can be achieved except by the unselfish cooperation of many individuals.”

          Thank you. 

Weaver: I would deliver an invocation similar to the one I gave before the Pennsylvania Senate:

          Good morning.  Thank you for welcoming something different to your day.  It is an honor to be given a voice in this governing body.

          In recent months, religious beliefs have been at the forefront of national debate.  We are fortunate to live in a country founded and formed to recognize the importance of the individual, where no one shall be made to hide nor justify his personal beliefs, and where no government shall impose a singular religion on its citizenry.  Where there is misunderstanding, we may engage in conscientious and respectful dialogue to assuage fear.

          I am humbled to represent a portion of your diverse constituency, and that may raise the question, do atheists pray?  A prayer is meditative, seeking inner strength to face difficulty and challenge.  A prayer is solicitous, seeking to bring a benefit or relief to one’s self, a loved one, or even to strangers.  A prayer can be a direct appeal to a higher power.

          So, let us pray that we may use our power to lead with compassion and understanding, that we remain tolerant of others regardless of differences in religious belief, gender, race, sexual, or political orientation, and that we treat one another as we wish to be treated.  Let us pray for open minds and for the strength to overcome preconceived judgment.  Let us learn daily and consider wisely.  Let us be mindful of our one diverse human family with common values and needs.  Let us work toward clean air, clear water, safe neighborhoods, strong schools, and a viable economy with sustained employment opportunity for all.  Let us provide for well-trained and equipped firefighters, emergency responders, police, and military, and may we never forget their sacrifice.  As we forge ahead toward the common good of community, may we all benefit from the enduring power of diversity.

          Thank you.