Pennsylvania Atheists Sue To Stop Opening Prayers Before Lawmakers’ Sessions

A group of atheists is suing to stop the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from opening their session with prayers, saying that the process discriminates against non-believers, The Harrisburg Patriot-News is reporting.

For over 300 years — going back to the time when Pennsylvania was a crown colony and its House of Representatives was called a “provincial assembly” — that particular governing body has opened each session with a prayer to the deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Brian Fields, the president of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, is having none of that. Together with representatives from groups calling themselves Dillsburg Area Freethinkers and Lancaster Freethought Society, Fields filed a lawsuit, which you can read here, against the Pennsylvania House, asking them to stop the practice of making participants and observers stand for the “recitation of a faith-based initiative.”

Specifically, the suit claims that not only has the House rejected appeals from non-religious groups to offer an invocation (instead of a prayer), but that at one point, a House security officer confronted members of the group for not standing during a prayer.

“In the House’s eyes, people who do not believe in God remain a disfavored minority against whom it is acceptable to discriminate.”

According to Patriot-News writer Jan Murphy, the prayers offered in the Pennsylvania House are generally mundane and non-specific. The guest chaplain will usually invoke God to direct the members of the House to “do the things that matter and not to waste the time we have,” to “work on behalf of all Pennsylvanians,” and to get along with each other. The House guest chaplains are also encouraged to be respectful of all faiths.

According to Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, that’s not good enough.

“When governmental bodies open their meetings with invocations, no viewpoints should be excluded. That includes people who do not believe in God. No one should be made to feel like a second-class citizen by their government.”

In case you were wondering, the Pennsylvania Senate also opens its sessions with prayers and invocations, although over on the Senate side of things other viewpoints appear more welcome. So much so that Deana Weaver of the Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Pennsylvania House, has even given an invocation to open the Senate.

House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin told the Patriot-News on Thursday morning that he was not aware of the lawsuit and wouldn’t be able to comment on it.

“It appears you, the media, were notified of this prior to us. We have not yet been served with anything.”

Outside of Pennsylvania, the matter of government getting perhaps too mixed in with religion seems to come up pretty regularly, and generally atheist advocacy organizations, such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State or the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), are involved.

Just this summer, FFRF has sent letters to police departments in 30 towns and cities across the country, asking them to remove “In God We Trust” decals and other Christian symbolism from taxpayer-funded police vehicles.

“FFRF reminds the agencies that citizens trust law enforcement officers to attend to their secular duties, not spend taxpayer money placing religious messages on patrol cars to the exclusion of the 23% of Americans who are not religious.”

Do you believe Pennsylvania atheists are right to ask the House of Representatives to stop making observers stand for an opening prayer before each session?

[Image via Pete Spiro/Shutterstock]