Bad Bill Backlash: Pennsylvania Lawmakers Face Criticism For Religious Resolutions

It seems like a handful of Pennsylvania legislators need to spend more time reading law books than Bibles.

Opponents of church-state separation seem to have found fertile soil in Pennsylvania, where lately misguided lawmakers have backed resolutions that offend the principles of the First Amendment. But now, some Americans United activists and others are fighting back.

Last year, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives unanimously declared that 2012 was the “Year of the Bible,” and approved a resolution that stated “biblical teachings inspired concepts of civil government that are contained in our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.” It also asserted that “renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people” and declares “our national need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures.”

The resolution wasn’t binding, so it didn’t serve any purpose other than to entangle religion and government, as well as alienate a lot of people. (A judge dismissed a lawsuit over the resolution, but went out of his way to chastise the lawmakers who approved it.)  

Then this year, the House declared that April 30 should be “National Fast Day,” to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of the same name. That doesn’t sound so bad in and of itself, except Lincoln’s original proclamation included a bit of religious messaging, and his words are quoted in the Pennsylvania resolution.

“The Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the Supreme Authority and just Government of Almighty God, in all the affairs of men and of nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day for National prayer and humiliation,” reads the resolution.

It went on to say a lot more about thanking God, but you get the point. And it’s obviously problematic from a church-state standpoint.

This latest proclamation from Pennsylvania riled the members of Americans United’s Delaware Valley Chapter (DVAU), so it issued a press release condemning the “National Fast Day.”

“This resolution reads like one long prayer,” Janice Rael, vice president of the DVAU chapter said in the statement, as reported by Philly Now. “I find it hard to believe that with all of the problems facing this state, legislators could find no better ways to spend their time than to try to tell us how to worship.”

Rael is exactly right. This latest resolution does absolutely nothing to improve the lives of the residents of Pennsylvania, and it’s an improper government endorsement of religion. The only thing it really does is pander to voters aligned with the Religious Right.  

Fortunately, some state lawmakers are starting to stand up and set the record straight about their own responsibility to uphold the Constitution.  

Earlier this week, during debate over HB 818, which would restrict abortion access for low-income women, Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) said: “Each of us put our hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. We did not place our hands on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”

Sims borrowed the line from Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor who made that statement back in 2006 during a Maryland State Senate hearing on a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in the state. The message clearly applies to Pennsylvania just as it did to Maryland.

It has been disconcerting to see Pennsylvania passing resolutions promoting religion. Even though the moves didn’t carry any legal weight, they are evidence of a problematic sentiment: some lawmakers simply don’t respect the First Amendment.   

If that’s the case, it seems like a handful of legislators need to spend more time reading law books than Bibles.

P.S. Not all of the resolutions being promoted in Pennsylvania are bad. Rep. Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia) plans to introduce one soon commemorating the 50th anniversary of Abington Township v. Schempp, the case that struck down mandatory prayer and Bible reading in public schools. That’s one resolution AU can get behind.