Nonbelievers win suit over Pennsylvania prayer policy
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A federal judge has halted the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ policy banning people who don’t believe in God from giving the invocations made at the start of each day’s legislative floor session.
U.S. Middle District Judge Christopher Conner on Wednesday sided with atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and humanists who challenged the policy that has limited the opening prayers to those who believe in God or a divine or higher power.
Conner said the restrictions on who may serve as guest chaplain violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on making laws that establish a religion.
The judge said Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai, whose office manages the guest chaplains, has denied the people and groups who challenged the policy the ability to give an invocation “due solely to the nontheistic nature of their beliefs.”
“In light of this nation’s vastly diverse religious tapestry, there is no justification to sanction government’s establishment of a category of favored religions — like monotheistic or theistic faiths — through legislative prayer,” Conner wrote .
He said it was “the content of the prayers, rather than their theistic or nontheistic nature, that matters.”
Turzai and the other defendants had argued the Establishment Clause was not violated because they allowed people of different faiths to give the invocation, so no one religion was being favored.
A spokesman for the House Republican caucus said the decision will be appealed.
The head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which helped represent the plaintiffs, said the case was about government treating all citizens alike, no matter their religious beliefs or lack of belief.