Federal court says atheists can be blocked from delivering invocation at Pennsylvania statehouse

Atheists, agnostics and those who do not believe in a god or gods can be barred from delivering invocations in the Pennsylvania statehouse, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

Reversing a lower court decision, the 3rd Circuit Court in Philadelphia upheld a policy within the state’s House of Representatives that the invocations that open its legislative sessions can be given only by a lawmaker in the House or “a member of a regularly established church or religious organization.”

The court ruled that the policy does not violate a nontheistic person’s First Amendment rights because it abides by the “historical tradition of legislative prayer” and counts as government speech, which allows a governmental entity to select specific views, NBC News reported.

{mosads}”First, only theistic prayer can satisfy all the traditional purposes of legislative prayer. Second, the Supreme Court has long taken as given that prayer presumes invoking a higher power,” the appeals court ruled. “Legislative prayer has historically served many purposes, both secular and religious. Because only theistic prayer can achieve them all, the historical tradition supports the House’s choice to restrict prayer to theistic invocations.” 

The court said that the House rules still require the person giving the invocation to “craft a prayer ‘respectful of all religious beliefs.'” 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which argued the case for nontheists in front of the court, called the ruling “disappointing” on Twitter on Friday.

“While treating non-theists like second-class citizens may have been part of our nation’s history, it’s a shameful practice, hardly something we ought to uphold today. Yet rulings like the one in the Fields case do just that: They preference believers in god while sending a message of exclusion and even scorn to non-theists,” the organization said in a statement on its website Friday.

Judge L. Felipe Restrepo dissented, writing, “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.'”

Seven nontheist individuals filed the suit in 2016 after a member of the Dillsburg Area Free Thinkers requested to give an invocation in the statehouse in 2014 and was rejected by then-Speaker Sam Smith (R-PA), NBC News reported. 

Invocations have been given in the statehouse by Christian clergy, Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, monotheistic faith leaders and a Sikh chaplain.

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