A Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ policy barring people who do not believe in God from offering pre-meeting invocations is discriminatory, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.
In a federal lawsuit filed today, Americans United and American Atheists explain that several non-theists who requested to deliver opening invocations before the House were deemed ineligible on the grounds that they are “non-adherents or nonbelievers.”
This policy does not pass constitutional muster, the groups say.
“When governmental bodies open their meetings with invocations, no viewpoints should be excluded,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “That includes people who do not believe in God. No one should be made to feel like a second-class citizen by their government.”
The Pennsylvania House has a longstanding tradition of opening invocations, which are often delivered by guests from the community. Over the last two years, with assistance from Americans United, non-theists have made repeated requests to take part in that tradition. All those requests were rejected.
Said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser: “Just like people who believe in God, atheists and Humanists are capable of delivering inspiring and moving invocations. There is no good reason for the House to exclude them.”
The plaintiffs in the case include Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, its president Brian Fields, and member Joshua Neiderhiser; Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, its chief organizer Paul Tucker, and member Deana Weaver; and Lancaster Freethought Society and its president Scott Rhoades.
Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is being litigated by Luchenitser, Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, AU Madison Fellows Carmen Green and Andrew Nellis,* Eric O. Husby of American Atheists and Pennsylvania attorney Allen Warshaw.
*2016 law school graduate not yet admitted to bar.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.