Non-Theists Need Not Apply

Americans United Lawsuit Challenges Pa. House of Representatives Policy Limiting Invocations To Believers

When Deana Weaver, a mem­ber of Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, asked to deliver a non-theistic message before a meeting of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, she was told no.

“My state representative and the House leadership refused to allow me to deliver an opening invocation to the House because I do not believe in a deity,” Weaver said in a recent interview with Americans United. “This makes me feel that I am not being represented in the House on account of my beliefs concerning religion.”

Scott Rhoades, a certified Humanist celebrant and president of Lancaster Freethought Society, asked to offer a secular invocation before the House but was denied that opportunity as well.

“I was made to feel like a second-class citizen when I was denied the same rights that other clergy are allowed to exercise,” the Lancaster resident told Americans United. 

The Pennsylvania House has a longstanding tradition of opening its deliberations with invocations, which are often delivered by guests from the community. But a recently adopted policy states that invited chaplains must be members of an established house of worship or religious group – a rule the House’s leadership has used to justify discrimination against atheists and other non-believers.

In fact, the House has refused to permit non-theists such as Weaver and Rhoades to open meetings of the body on the grounds that they are “non-adherents or nonbelievers.” 

Given this deliberate exclusion, Americans United and American Atheists (AA) filed suit Aug. 25 on behalf of Weaver and Rhoades, as well as Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, its president Brian Fields, and member Joshua Neiderhiser. Its chief organizer, Paul Tucker, Dillsburg Area Freethinkers and Lancaster Free­thought Society (an organization led by Rhoades) are also plaintiffs in the case challenging the lawmakers’ prayer practice.

The lawsuit, Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, argues that barring people who do not believe in God from offering pre-meeting invocations is unconstitutional. 

Although the Pennsylvania House has long opened its sessions with an official invocation, it did not adopt a policy aimed at excluding non-theists until recently. Notably, this change came after several non-theists asked to address the legislative body with an invocation.

Since Jan. 6, 2015, House General Operating Rule 17 has provided that “[t]he Chaplain offering the prayer shall be a member of a regularly established church or religious organization or shall be a member of the House of Representatives,” a policy that is intended to exclude anyone with a secular outlook.

AU believes this policy runs afoul of the First Amendment in light of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The high court said in an Americans United-sponsored case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, that local governments have the right to open their meetings with official prayers – even if those prayers are predominantly Christian.

But the high court also said that governing bodies must “maintain … a policy of nondiscrimination” when selecting invocation speakers, and that official policies of selection cannot “reflect an aversion or bias … against minority faiths.” Thus “a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.”

The Pennsylvania House, AU asserts, is not respecting the parameters of that ruling by refusing to allow non-theistic invocations.

What would a secular invocation say? It would be a call for inclusion and tolerance of all viewpoints.

Lead plaintiff Fields provided this example to Americans United: “Our commonwealth was founded on the principles of tolerance, respect and equality. As we gather, let us fully consider each citizen of this commonwealth as equals in the eyes of the law. May reason and rationality guide our decisions, and may those decisions be considered to be in the best interests of all of us.

“We are a commonwealth of many different people working together. We are a commonwealth of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Chris­tians, agnostics, atheists and many, many others. We may disagree in many respects, but we can all agree here that our laws are the foundation of our civil society. To that end, I ask that those gathered here today remember that the reason that society works is the fair and judicious application of those laws discussed here.

“To close, I would like to offer the words of Albert Einstein: ‘Nothing truly valuable can be achieved except by the unselfish cooperation of many individuals.’ Thank you.”

Over the last two years, non-theists, assisted by Americans United, have made repeated requests to take part in the House invocation tradition. All those requests were rejected.

The House’s stance is especially frustrating because the Pennsylvania Senate has welcomed non-theistic invocations. Weaver was able to deliver a secular invocation before the state Senate in 2015. During her remarks, she emphasized the solemnizing themes of compassion, understanding and strength in a diverse community.

Yet Weaver’s attempts to bring a message like that to the House have been thwarted. In August 2014, she contacted her representative, Rep. Mike Regan (R-Dillsburg), in an attempt to offer her message to House lawmakers but was turned down.

Additional requests were sent by Americans United and Pennsylvania Nonbelievers to House officials between August 2014 and August 2015. In September 2014, then-House Speak­er Samuel H. Smith (R-Jefferson) responded with flawed legal contentions stemming from his interpretation of the Greece v. Galloway ruling, as well as his opinion that lawmakers open their meetings with prayer out of a desire for divine wisdom.

“We view the opening prayer as an opportunity for the members of the House to seek divine intervention in their work and in their lives,” Smith wrote. “We honor requests from religious leaders of any regularly established church or congregation to serve as chaplains and permit them to address his or her God as their conscience dictates….”

Smith added that the House wants to continue practices “based on the historical traditions of the House of Representatives that date back to the 18th Century.” 

In response, Americans United ramped things up. On Jan. 9, 2015, AU attorneys sent a letter to House officials on behalf of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, requesting the right to deliver an invocation. Six days later, Clancy Myer, the House parliamentarian, responded. It was not good news.

“I shall not repeat the analysis contained in Speaker Smith’s letter of September 25, 2014, because in our opinion, that has not changed,” Myer wrote.

The letter also noted that the House had changed its rules for speakers in an effort to formally exclude atheists.

In AU’s view, this is a clear case of discrimination.

“When governmental bodies open their meetings with invocations, no viewpoints should be excluded,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a media statement. “That includes people who do not believe in God. No one should be made to feel like a second-class citizen by their government.”

Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania House’s discrimination against non-believers is not limited to that body’s selection of invocation speakers. Before each invocation, the speaker directs members of the House and the audience to rise.

Indeed, on one occasion, both Fields and Rhoades were observing the House proceedings from the visitor’s gallery. When it came time for the opening invocation, the speaker asked everyone to stand. Fields and Rhoades remained seated, to the apparent chagrin of the speaker – who again asked them to stand. When they did not, a security officer was dispatched to the gallery and pressured the two to get up. Nonetheless, they remained seated.

“I was horrified when the House decided that atheists have nothing to say when it comes to offering words to the representatives gathered to form the laws for our state,” said Fields. “I also remember sitting in the gallery in the House when we were ordered from the floor to stand for prayers we didn’t believe in.”

(Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, told the Associated Press recently that session attendees are no longer pressured to stand for the invocations in the manner that Fields and Rhoades were, but the speaker still directs audience members to rise for the invocation, an action that under the Greece ruling is not allowed. That decision makes it clear that government officials must nor coerce citizens to take part in prayers by instructing them to rise.)

Given the House’s discriminatory policies and practices, it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of official House invocations over the last eight years have been Christian in nature. Between Jan. 8, 2008, and Feb. 9, 2016, the House met 678 times. On 575 occasions, the meeting began with an invocation. Of the 575 invocations, 310 were given by a member of the House – and all were overtly Christian or at least monotheistic.

Guests offered invocations 265 times. Of those, 238 were delivered by Christian clergy, 23 by Jewish rabbis and three by Muslim clerics. A single prayer giver was not part of any recognized religion, but still gave a monotheistic prayer. Every prayer had some sort of theistic content.

“Just like people who believe in God, atheists and Humanists are capable of delivering inspiring and moving invocations,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser in a press statement. “There is no good reason for the House to exclude them.”

Yet that is precisely what the House has done.

“Any government legislation or interaction with the public must allow for application to or participation by any and all of the government’s constituency,” plaintiff Weaver said. “Anything less is discrimination and oppression.

She added: “I deserve to be judged by the quality of my performance and contribution to my community. It has been an insult, and certainly discriminatory, to have been judged and disregarded by the elected officials of the state House of Representatives, who are duty-bound to represent the interests of all of their constituency, not just the ones who have ‘acceptable’ religious beliefs.”

At least one of the plaintiffs said this mistreatment of atheists and other non-believers may stem from ignorance.

“Too often it feels that others believe that non-theistic people have nothing to say about morality or about social concerns because they feel that those concerns are only relevant in the context of God-belief,” said Fields. “For our secular government to reinforce that belief is disquieting, and I hope they recognize that as citizens of this state we too have something valuable to offer.”

Although this matter is about those who believe receiving preferential treatment over those who do not, some in the faith community are nonetheless offering support for this lawsuit. Bill Mefford, Americans United’s faith outreach specialist, said believers should support equal treatment.

“In an age where many legislative bodies have become bitterly partisan, we need all of the cooperative spirit we can get!” Mefford wrote in a post on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog. “In the case of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, the proposed involvement of non-theistic people in giving invocations is a helpful reminder that government serves people of many backgrounds and if some are allowed to offer invocations, then all must be given that same opportunity.”

When the lawsuit was announced, it attracted immediate media coverage. Aside from the Associated Press, stories appeared on PennLive, a news website operated by the Harrisburg Patriot-News in the state’s capital.  The Huffington Post and several atheist and Humanist bloggers also covered the story.

Additionally, the plaintiffs wrote an opinion column that appeared on PennLive to explain why they brought the lawsuit.

“We don’t know how Pennsylvanians will react to the secular invocations we would like to deliver. Some may cheer them, while others may not,” read the opinion piece. “But we know one thing for sure: The people of this great Commonwealth will never have the chance to decide if our voices continue to be squelched.” 

Although the case is just getting under way, plaintiffs say they made the right decision to join with Americans United and American Atheists in standing up for the rights of non-theists in Pennsylvania.

“Americans United has a long history of both protecting religious freedom and working towards maintaining the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state,” Rhoades said. “AU has both religious and non-religious members and seeks to protect everyone’s right to worship or not worship however they want without a governmental endorsement of one particular faith. American Atheists similarly has a long history of fighting for the rights of non-believers. I felt that AU and AA were the perfect vehicles to pursue this exercise in civil justice and I’m proud to be represented by them.”