Why Americans United And American Atheists Are Suing The Pennsylvania House Of Representatives Over Its Invocation Policy
Update: A federal judge on April 28, 2017, issued an opinion allowing the lawsuit to proceed after hearing arguments on Feb. 22.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State and American Atheists filed a lawsuit on behalf of five state residents against officials of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The suit alleges that the House, which routinely opens its meetings with prayers led by guest clergy, is engaging in discrimination by refusing to allow representatives of non-theistic groups to offer secular invocations.
The case is Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
INTERVIEWS, ANALYSIS & MEDIA:
Some Questions And Answers About This Lawsuit:
Q. What is this lawsuit about?
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives allows members of faith-based religions to offer invocations to open House sessions but refuses to allow members of non-theistic groups to do so. The case, Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, is about fairness and equal treatment. A government body that represents people of many different faiths, as well as people of no faith, should not play favorites.
Q. Why do non-theistic groups want to deliver an invocation? Aren’t such things usually based on a belief in God?
An invocation is merely an opening statement that offers guidance or thoughtful ideas before a meeting or an official event. The purpose is to solemnize the event and put everyone in the mindset for cooperative public service. Non-theist groups want to be a part of this solemnizing event like everyone else. While many invocations are theistic, they don’t have to be. In this case, the proposed non-theistic invocations would be a reminder that government serves people of many backgrounds, and they would call for mutual respect and tolerance.
Q. Would a non-theistic invocation attack or criticize theistic faiths?
No. The purpose of an invocation is to bring people together, not divide them. The invocations the non-theistic groups want to deliver would emphasize respect for our differences and call for unity. They would not belittle anyone’s beliefs. The proposed invocations would be welcoming to all, and they would affirm our country’s great tradition of tolerance.
Q. Have other local and state government bodies allowed non-theistic groups to offer invocations?
Yes, they have. Across the country, many cities, towns, county governments and state governments have welcomed non-theistic groups and allowed them to deliver invocations. In fact, the Pennsylvania Senate has done so as well. If the state’s Senate can permit a non-theistic invocation, surely the House can too.
Q. Why is this issue important?
We prize religious freedom in America, and that means people have the right to decide what faith group, if any, they wish to join. Increasing numbers of Americans do not subscribe to any theistic faith. Some of these “nones” are spiritual but have no formal ties to a denomination. Others identify as atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, Humanists or other titles. The government should respect the religious choices of the people and not elevate one faith over others or belief over non-belief. Non-theists are a part of the American experiment and simply wish to have the same rights as theistic religious groups – including the right to speak before a government meeting.
Q. Is this case designed to end invocations before the Pennsylvania legislature?
No, it is not. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1983 that state legislatures may open their deliberations with invocations, so that issue is settled. The Supreme Court also decided, in 2014, that the government cannot discriminate based on belief when selecting invocation speakers. This lawsuit seeks nothing more than to secure equal treatment between theistic and non-theistic groups by the Pennsylvania House, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Q. Who are the defendants in the lawsuit?
The defendants are House officials and members who have authority over the selection of invocation speakers in the House districts where the plaintiffs reside. None of the defendants are being sued as individuals. Rather, the lawsuit is against their official positions. It is necessary to sue these specific offices instead of the whole House for technical legal reasons.
Q. Where can I learn more about this issue?
Americans United runs a project called Operation Inclusion that is designed to help citizens understand their rights when it comes to prayers and invocations before government meetings. Operation Inclusion seeks just what its name implies – inclusion of a variety of theistic and non-theistic voices in the government sphere. At the Operation Inclusion webpage, you can read a model of an inclusive secular invocation and review other information about this issue.
Media Coverage of this Case: