Court: Pennsylvania Statehouse Can Bar Invocations By Atheists
A federal appeals court ruled last week that the Pennsylvania statehouse rule barring non-theists from giving invocations does not violate the First Amendment, according to NBC News.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia reversed a lower court ruling from last year and upheld the state’s House of Representatives policy that only "a member of a regularly established church or religious organization” or a sitting member of the House may offer the invocation.
The rule precludes atheists, agnostics and others who do not believe in God from providing the prayer.
The policy does not violate the First Amendment, the appeals court said, because it adheres to the “historical tradition of legislative prayer" and counts as government speech.
NBC News noted that the government speech doctrine “recognizes that a government entity ‘is entitled to say what it wishes’ and to select the views that it wants to express.”
The lone dissenting judge in the case, Judge L. Felipe Restrepo, wrote that, "By mandating that all guest chaplains profess a belief in a ‘higher power’ or God, the Pennsylvania House fails to stay ‘neutral in matters of religious theory.'"
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which helped represent the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the ruling allows for "special privileges to people because they believe in a god."
"The court buttressed its argument by pointing to 'historical practices,'" the organization said in a statement. "This is blind to the reality of modern-day America where increasing numbers of people are declaring themselves 'nones' — individuals who seek spirituality outside the confines of a house or worship or discard religion entirely."