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The problem for Pennsylvania’s House is that its guest chaplain policy “categorically excludes those who would present an uplifting message of hope, mutual respect, and peace yet – based upon their nontheistic beliefs – would fail to incorporate theistic entreaties to a divine or higher power,” the judge found.
The same judge also said, We hold that the pre-2017 House invocation practice is unconstitutionally coercive and contravenes the Establishment Clause. We will therefore grant plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment as to the pre-2017 House practice but grant defendants’ motion as to the current practice.”
“This was a very carefully thought-out, well-reasoned decision that protects religious equality and ensures that people are going to be treated equally by the House regardless of whether or not they believe in a god,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legislative director for Americans United.
The court did issue an injuntion against a current practice by the House:
“The Pennsylvania House of Representatives opens legislative sessions with an invocation delivered by a member of the House or a guest chaplain. The Speaker of the House maintains a guest chaplain policy that categorically excludes those who would present an uplifting message of hope, mutual respect, and peace yet—based upon their nontheistic beliefs—would fail to incorporate theistic entreaties to a divine or higher power. Each of the individual plaintiffs desires to deliver an opening invocation before the House. The Speaker has denied plaintiffs this opportunity due solely to the nontheistic nature of their beliefs. In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece, we find that the House policy violates Case 1:16-cv-01764-CCC Document 109 Filed 08/29/18 Page 1 of 36 2 the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
A spokesman for House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, said the House definitely intends to appeal this decision.
“We’re still reviewing this opinion but we clearly disagree,” said House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin.
He pointed out to a 2017 federal court judge’s decision in Washington, D.C., that upheld the U.S. House’s ability to pick and choose who it allows to lead its opening prayer.
The House has opened its sessions with a prayer going back to December 1682 delivered by a permanent chaplain, monthly rotating guest chaplain, and most recently, a House member or “a member of a regularly established church or religious organization.”