Last year Americans United sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Senate, asking the leadership to revise that body's prayer policy. Like a lot of government bodies, the state Senate opens with a prayer, often one delivered by a guest minister.
AU had received complaints from Keystone State residents who noticed that the prayers were almost always Christian. We asked the members of the Senate to use non-sectarian prayers instead, noting that the Supreme Court has allowed these types of prayers before meetings of government bodies but not sectarian ones.
AU's letter got picked up by a few newspapers, and there was a bit of flap. Some lawmakers used the issue to criticize Americans United, and some Religious Right activists moaned about our protest.
State officials had a more reasonable response. Our attorneys received a letter of reply from Lt.Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, who informed us that guest ministers are asked to give a "brief, interfaith opening prayer." We were glad to hear this, although we pointed out that some ministers are obviously not following these guidelines.
Now it looks like the Pennsylvania Senate might be taking another important step toward inclusion. It is considering allowing a non-religious person to offer a secular invocation.
Paul Carpenter, a columnist for the Allentown Morning Call, reported recently that state Sen. Lisa Boscola of Northampton has indicated that she will invite an atheist to the Senate chambers. Boscola's offer came in response to a Carpenter column in which he proposed that real diversity would mean including a non-religious speaker every now and then.
Carl Silverman of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers has sent Boscola a list of three non-theists in the state who are willing to come to Harrisburg and offer an invocation. Carpenter reports that Boscola's office has the list and sent it to an aide to Sen. Terry Punt, who arranges invocations.
Wrote the blunt-spoken Carpenter, "This idea may distress the Senate's more extreme Bible-thumpers, but history may be made soon – an atheist giving the invocation to open a legislative session in Pennsylvania."
That would indeed be historic. If it happens, we hope the event is not marred by the type of intolerant and juvenile behavior that occurred in the U.S. Senate July 12 when a Hindu leader was invited to give the opening prayer. Fundamentalist Christian activists disrupted Rajan Zed's invocation by shouting and had to be removed from the chamber.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn recently coauthored a book with C. Welton Gaddy, president of The Interfaith Alliance, titled First Freedom First: A Citizen's Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State. Lynn wrote several essays for the book, including one that explains why freedom of belief is not secure unless freedom of unbelief is as well. (The essay will be excerpted in the April issue of Church & State.) Lynn and Gaddy are both ministers, yet they have no problem advocating that point of view.
Members of the Pennsylvania Senate shouldn't either.