There’s an epic prayer battle unfolding in Pennsylvania, with atheist activists suing for the right to deliver secular invocations before meetings in the state’s House of Representatives.
And a federal judge has permitted the complaint to forge on after three atheist groups — Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, the Lancaster Freethought Society and Pennsylvania Nonbelievers Inc. — first filed the lawsuit last year, the Associated Press reported.
The atheist plaintiffs behind the Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives case, who are represented by Alex Luchenitser of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the group American Atheists, argue that at least two atheists were pressured by the Pennsylvania house speaker and security guards to stand during an opening prayer.
They also allege that Pennsylvania Nonbelievers Inc. was disallowed from delivering invocations in both 2014 and 2015. The House has opened its meetings with prayer for the past three centuries, Penn Live reported.
The complaint centers on the allegation that “religious leaders of any regularly established church or congregation” are allowed to offer prayers before government meetings, but that secularists are not given that same right.
And of the 678 meetings that unfolded over the past eight years, 575 are said to have opened with prayer. While the majority were Christian invocations, some were Jewish and Muslim as well, according to the AP.
U.S. Judge for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Christopher Conner ruled on Friday that the atheists’ lawsuit could continue based on their claim that refusals of secular invocations constitute violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The most specific allegation in the case is that “theism” is valued over secularism and atheism. Conner’s decision now means that the case will be given a full hearing to consider whether Pennsylvania did, indeed, violate the First Amendment with its prayer policies.
Americans United praised Conner’s ruling, with Luchenitser offering a response in a statement issued on Friday.
“The Pennsylvania House’s policy of barring people who don’t believe in God from delivering invocations is discriminatory and unconstitutional,” he said. “I’m pleased that we’ll be able to make our case in court.”
Prayer before government meetings has long been a contentious issue, though it’s one the Supreme Court recently took up and issued a ruling on in the landmark 2014 Greece v. Galloway case. The justices decided in that case that prayer at town council meetings — even prayer that sometimes stresses Christianity — is perfectly constitutional.
That said, the ruling also specified that the prayer of all faiths must be included or permitted before meetings. Many towns and localities have took this to mean that non-believers and atheists must also be permitted to deliver invocations; and atheists have made it a point to show up and offer their version of “prayer” in communities across the U.S.
With all that in mind, it will be intriguing to see where this Pennsylvania case goes next.
(H/T: Associated Press)
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