HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A federal judge in Pennsylvania has kept alive a lawsuit by nonbelievers who want to be allowed to give invocations at the start of state House sessions.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner ruled Friday the case will continue on the claim that the practice violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment, prohibiting the establishment of religion by the government.
The judge said he’s allowing the section of the lawsuit to continue that argues the policy favors “theism to nontheism and excessively entangl(es) the House in religious judgment, and coerc(es) House visitors to participate in theistic prayer.”
He dismissed portions of the case that alleged violations of people’s right to free speech, free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.
The defendants are the House speaker, the parliamentarian and five House members who represent districts where the plaintiffs live or meet.
A spokesman for the House majority Republicans said the ruling means the court will be getting more information about the facts.
“The practices in the House began 335 years ago and we believe conform with constitutional requirements,” said the House GOP spokesman, Steve Miskin.
The lawsuit, which seeks no money damages, was filed last year by five people and three organizations — the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers Inc., the Dillsburg Area Freethinkers and the Lancaster Freethought Society.
They say two of them were pressured by the speaker and then House security officers to stand during an opening prayer. They also say the House speaker in 2014, former Rep. Sam Smith, R- Jefferson, turned down a request by the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers to deliver an invocation, saying the House only honors “requests from religious leaders of any regularly established church or congregation.”
The lawsuit said 575 of the 678 House sessions over eight years began with an invocation. People who aren’t elected representatives delivered it 265 times: 238 were Christian clergy, 23 were rabbis, three were in the Muslim tradition and one was not affiliated with a religion and gave a monotheistic prayer.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Americans United for Separation of Church and State associate legal director Alex Luchenitser, said his clients were very pleased with the judge’s decision, and the next step will be for both sides to share information through the discovery process.
“Our lead claim has always been the Establishment Clause claims,” he said. “Those other claims were basically backup claims.”
He said the House still asks people to stand up during the invocations, but they say they are no longer compelling visitors to stand.
“It’s still a constitutional violation — they’re still coercing people,” he said.
Conner said the plaintiffs intend to give “uplifting and inspirational messages,” showing that people who don’t believe in God can offer meaningful commentary on morality and “reflections valuable to public governance.”
He said the defendants argue that legislative prayers are presumed to be constitutional unless they’re used to proselytize or denigrate others and that U.S. Supreme Court precedent is on their side.
The judge said he rejected the argument that the defendants can discriminate on the basis of religion just because their own rules don’t prohibit it.
Conner said the case will look into whether history and tradition support the House policy and that he expects to get more evidence about whether the plaintiffs practice a religion or are capable of praying.
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