Yesterday, Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser was in Philadelphia arguing a case before a federal appeals court.
The case, Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, raises important issues. Pennsylvania has a longstanding practice of opening its legislative sessions with invocations; many of them are delivered by guests from the community – but not everyone is allowed to participate.
The state Senate allows nontheists to offer invocations, but the House of Representatives does not. In 2014, several nontheists in the state began making requests to take part in the practice. After being turned down, they asked AU for help.
We always try to resolve these matters outside of court if possible, so AU’s attorneys wrote to the House’s leadership and urged them to include the nontheists. House leadership did not want to do this. They even established a new policy that supports 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.
I should note that no one is 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. What we’re seeking in Pennsylvania is inclusion for nontheists and others.
A federal court ruled in our favor last year, and now the case is on appeal to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Americans United believes that nontheistic invocations can perform the function of solemnizing a meeting just as well as theistic ones can. Experience bears this out. Many state and local legislative bodies have included nontheistic invocations without a hitch. (For more on this, I recommend Jay Wexler’s great new book Our Non-Christian Nation: How Atheists, Satanists, Pagans, and Others Are Demanding Their Rightful Place in Public Life. Wexler has an entire chapter exploring the issue. You can also read a blog post about the case by plaintiff Brian Fields here. And for more background, here’s a 2016 story from Church & State.)
Recent polls show that the number of Americans who identify as “nones” – that is, people who, when asked to name a religious preference, reply “none” – is rising. While some nones believe in God, others are nontheists. All should have the same right to interact with their government that everyone else has.