Americans United presented arguments before a federal court Feb. 22 on behalf of a group of Pennsylvania residents and non-theist organizations that are seeking the right to offer non-theistic invocations prior to meetings of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
The state House typically opens its daily sessions with an invocation. Of the nearly 600 invocations offered from January 2008 to February 2016, only one could be identified as associated with a religion other than Christianity, Judaism or Islam. (It was a Native American prayer given by a Christian House member.) None were non-theistic.
When the non-theists began requesting the opportunity to deliver a secular invocation, the speaker of the House at the time said “non-adherents and nonbelievers” weren’t permitted to offer opening thoughts. In January 2015, the House altered its rules to permit only House representatives or members of an “established church or religious organization” to offer invocations.
AU and American Atheists last summer filed a lawsuit arguing the Pennsylvania House’s policy is discriminatory and unconstitutional because it involves government showing disfavor for certain beliefs.
AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser and AU attorney Andrew Nellis argued the case, Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, before Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. The judge has not yet ruled in the case.
Brian Fields, one of the plaintiffs, wrote on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog that he and his colleagues aren’t trying to put an end to the House invocations, but are seeking to be treated the same as religious groups.
“Members of the House hear theistic invocations most days,” Fields wrote. “All my colleagues and I are asking for is the same right to occasionally deliver non-theistic remarks. We seek nothing more than equal treatment, and I hope the court … understands that.”