Federal Court Says AU Challenge To Pa. Legislative Prayer May Proceed

A federal court ruled April 28 that a legal challenge to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ legislative prayer practice sponsored by Americans United may proceed.

AU, which brought the case along with American Atheists, welcomed the decision in Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

“The Pennsylvania House’s policy of barring people who don’t believe in God from delivering invocations is discriminatory and unconstitutional,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. “I’m pleased that we’ll be able to make our case in court.”

The Pennsylvania House has a longstanding practice of opening invocations, which are often delivered by guests from the community. Over the last three years, with assistance from Americans United, non-theists have made repeated requests to take part in that practice. All of those requests were rejected on the basis of the requesters’ beliefs.

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.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner means that the case can now go forward for a full hearing on whether the House’s prayer policy violates the separation of church and state. 

Observed the court, “[W]hen a legislature opens its door to guest chaplains and other prayer givers, it may not purposefully discriminate among them on the basis of religion. … Plaintiffs allege that they are members of (or represent) minority religions, and that they have been purposefully excluded from the House’s guest chaplain program on the basis of their beliefs. They further allege that the House regularly opens its chamber to guest chaplains of more conventional faiths deemed suitable by the Speaker. Plaintiffs plead a policy of religious discrimination sufficient to state a First Amendment claim.”

The case is being litigated by Luchenitser, Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, AU Madison Fellows Andrew Nellis and Carmen Green, Eric O. Husby of American Atheists and Pennsylvania attorney Allen Warshaw.

On May 2, LNP, a newspaper published in Lancaster, urged House members to allow the non-theists to offer an invocation.

“Most of us draw our inspiration from our religious faith, but not everyone does. It’s not going to hurt the members of the state House to hear occasionally from someone with a different perspective,” editorialized the paper. “If a nonbeliever has an uplifting message for our lawmakers, let them share it. They can use all the help they can get.”