Harrisburg, PA—The federal district court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled on Wednesday that the Pennsylvania House of Representatives acted unconstitutionally when it barred atheists from offering invocations at the start of its legislative sessions. American Atheists joined Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in filing a lawsuit in 2016, after five individual plaintiffs were repeatedly denied requests to offer secular invocations in the House.
“The policy purposefully discriminates among invocation presenters on the basis of religion and thus exceeds the constitutional boundaries of legislative prayer. The House’s pre-2017 opening invocation practices, which coerces visitors to stand during the opening prayer and thereby participate in a religious exercise, likewise offends the Establishment Clause,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Christopher C. Connor in his opinion in Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
“We are pleased that the court has recognized that atheists have been unfairly excluded from participating in an exercise that is open to all Americans. The First Amendment prevents our government from favoring religion over non-religion, and today’s decision is a victory for all religious minorities,” said Alison Gill, Legal and Policy Director for American Atheists.
The court’s decision comes after the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Greece v. Galloway reaffirming that government bodies may open meetings with prayers and invocations, as long as they do not discriminate against atheists and other minority religious groups wishing to offer their own invocations and prayers. Shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the plaintiffs made repeated requests to participate in the longstanding tradition in the Pennsylvania House of allowing community members to give the invocation. Each of their requests was denied.
“The U.S. Constitution guarantees that the rights of citizens to participate in their government will never be tied to belief in a deity,” said Ed Buckner, American Atheists’ Interim Executive Director. “The Supreme Court has made this clear many times, and this decision protects that guarantee for the people of Pennsylvania.”