All eyes are focused on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, is undergoing confirmation hearings. (They got off to a rocky start Tuesday.)
As important as the hearings are – and remember, it’s not too late to contact your senators and urge them to vote against Kavanaugh – there are other noteworthy things going on in the world of church-state separation.
Last week, for example, a federal court issued an important ruling in a case brought by Americans United challenging the invocation policies of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
The Pennsylvania House has a longstanding practice of opening its sessions with invocations, which are often delivered by guests from the community. In 2014, several nontheists in the state began making requests to take part in that practice. After they were turned down, they asked Americans United for help.
AU wrote to the House’s leadership and urged them to include the nontheists, but the lawmakers were recalcitrant. In fact, they established a new policy that was intended to support their exclusion of nontheists.
In a joint effort with American Atheists, Americans United went to court. We’re representing 11 plaintiffs: the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones (AU’s board chairman and a Unitarian Universalist minister near Philadelphia), Brian Fields, Richard Kiniry, Joshua Neiderhiser, Scott Rhoades, Paul Tucker and Deana Weaver, as well as the organizations Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, Lancaster Freethought Society, Pennsylvania Nonbelievers and Philadelphia Ethical Society.
Just to be clear: We’re not trying to stop the Pennsylvania House from having invocations. The Supreme Court in 2014 upheld the concept of legislative prayer in Greece v. Galloway, a case brought by Americans United. But while the high court said such prayers are permissible, it also called for inclusion. That’s what we’re trying to do in Pennsylvania: expand the circle of invocation givers.
Ruling in our favor Aug. 29, U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner held that the House’s invocation policy “purposefully discriminates among invocation presenters on the basis of religion and thus exceeds the constitutional boundaries of legislative prayer.”
Supporters of legislative invocations often argue that they perform the secular function of solemnizing a meeting. Nontheistic invocations can do the same thing. In his ruling, Conner pointed this out, writing, “[M]any legislative bodies across this nation have opened with nontheistic invocations, and there is no evidence that such prayers fared worse than their theistic counterparts at fulfilling the foregoing purposes.”
In fact, members of the Pennsylvania House don’t have to look far for proof of this: The Pennsylvania Senate has allowed a nontheist, Deana Weaver, one of the plaintiffs in Americans United’s case against the House, to deliver opening invocation with no ill results.
In many states and communities, legislative invocations all too often default to the majority view – Christianity. As AU Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser, who serves as lead counsel in the case, noted, “The Pennsylvania House of Representatives should fully welcome all Pennsylvanians, including nontheists, as legislators conduct business on behalf of the people.”
AU is pleased to have won this case – but yesterday House officials filed an appeal. That’s unfortunate. Rather than continue fighting in court (and spend more taxpayer money), the Pennsylvania House should embrace an invocation policy that includes everyone.