Aug 29, 2018

A federal court today ruled that the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ practice of blocking nontheists from offering invocations during House sessions is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives along with the organization American Atheists, hailed the decision.

“Government’s first duty is to treat all citizens equally, regardless of what they may believe or not believe about religion,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives failed in that task, and we’re glad the court has set them straight.”

The Pennsylvania House has a longstanding practice of opening its sessions with invocations, which are often delivered by guests from the community. Starting in 2014, with assistance from Americans United, nontheists have made repeated requests to take part in that practice. Not only were those requests rejected on the basis of the requesters’ beliefs, but the House established a new policy that was intended to support its exclusion of nontheists.

“The policy purposefully discriminates among invocation presenters on the basis of religion and thus exceeds the constitutional boundaries of legislative prayer,” wrote U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner in today’s opinion. “The House’s pre-2017 opening invocation practice, which coerces visitors to stand during the opening prayer and thereby participate in a religious exercise, likewise offends the Establishment Clause.”

“The Pennsylvania House of Representatives should fully welcome all Pennsylvanians, including nontheists, as legislators conduct business on behalf of the people,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United and lead counsel in the case. “Instead, the House’s practice of barring residents who don’t believe in God from offering invocations created an atmosphere of exclusion and religious disfavor that was both discriminatory and unconstitutional. I’m pleased the court has put an end to it.”

The plaintiffs in the case include 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.

The case is being litigated by Luchenitser, Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, Eric O. Husby of American Atheists and Pennsylvania attorney Allen Warshaw.

Background on the case is available here.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

(Pictured are plaintiffs Scott Rhoades, Deana Weaver and Brian Fields.)