Court: Pennsylvania House May Ban Atheists from Leading Prayer

A federal appeals court ruled 2-1 on Friday that the Pennsylvania House of Representatives did not violate the U.S. Constitution by barring atheists from delivering official invocations at the start of legislative sessions. The ruling reversed a lower court decision from last year.

The House’s policy limits opening prayers to guest chaplains who believe in God, or a divine or high power, and are “member[s] of a regularly established church or religious organization.” The policy further says that prayer’s purpose is “to seek divine intervention” in the work and lives of House members.

Last year, a district judge ruled in favor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claimed that the policy violated the establishment, free speech, free exercise and equal protection clauses in the Constitution.

But the U.S. 3rdCircuit Court of Appeals has overturned that decision and upheld the House’s policy, stating that it did not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment because it fits within the “historical tradition of legislative prayer” and counts as government speech that is protected from a free speech or equal protection challenge.

“The House’s practice of beginning its legislative sessions with prayer dates back to the earliest days of our commonwealth and our nation. The current House practice is simply a continuation of that historical tradition,” said Karl Myers, a Philadelphia-based lawyer who argued in favor of the policy.

Friday’s majority decision cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that allowed the World War I cross memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland, to remain standing on public land.

“Only theistic prayer can satisfy all the traditional purposes of legislative prayer,” wrote Judge Thomas L. Ambro in the majority opinion. “The Supreme Court has long taken as given that prayer presumes invoking a high power.

Photo: Alamy.com