Court Deprived Atheists Of Opportunity To 'Pray' At Opening Invocations At State Legislature
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives now can ban constitutionally the chaplains who don’t believe in higher power or God for delivering opening invocations at its meeting. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed it.
In 2016 a group of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers sued members of the Pennsylvania House, arguing that it violates the Constitution’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from promoting specific religious beliefs.
Judge Thomas L. Ambro, who wrote Friday’s 2-1 majority opinion, claimed that because prayer presupposes a higher power, “only theistic invocations can achieve all the purposes of legislative prayer.”
“As a matter of traditional practice, a petition to human wisdom and the power of science does not capture the full sense of ‘prayer,’ historically understood,” Ambro wrote. “Because [nontheists] do not proclaim the existence of a higher power, they cannot offer religious prayer in the historical sense.”
The majority opinion shows a preference for people who believe in God while “sending a message of exclusion and even scorn to non-theists,” said Rob Boston, a senior adviser for the group.
“It’s yet another in a problematic line of recent decisions that allow government entities to endorse and promote religion (just about always Christianity) as long as it’s being done for ‘historic’ purposes,” Boston wrote in a blog on Monday, pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June that allowed a 40-foot-tall cross to continue to stand on public land in Maryland.
The appeals court’s decision on Friday reversed the lower court’s decision.
Judge L. Felipe Restrepo, who wrote a dissenting opinion, argued that the Pennsylvania House’s policy violates the establishment clause by “instituting a religious orthodoxy” and “controlling the content” of legislative prayer. Restrepo suggested that his colleagues’ opinion that only theistic invocations fulfill the goals of legislative prayer skirted a dangerous line.
“This line of reasoning by necessity involves answering sensitive questions about what constitutes the ‘divine’ and what words must be strung together for a speech to constitute a ‘prayer,’ which, in my view, are precisely the type of questions that the Establishment Clause forbids the government - including courts - from answering,” Restrepo said.
Greg Epstein is a humanist chaplain at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Epstein said that while he hasn’t participated in legislative prayer, he has often been asked to recite invocations for large civic gatherings, including at an interfaith inauguration ceremony for Boston Mayor Martin Walsh.
Epstein said the federal court’s decision on Friday “flat-out violates my rights, as an American, to be treated equally.”
“It’s just a terrible example of religious privilege: Certain groups of powerful people literally still get to define, in this country, whose philosophy of life gets to qualify as moral, as ethical, as worthy of endorsement by our legislative bodies,” Epstein said.
Photo by Mark Makela