A coalition of atheists and secular groups have brought a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania state legislature, asserting its refusal to allow those who don’t believe in God to lead the convocatory prayer before legislative sessions is discriminatory.
The suit, filed in federal district court in Harrisburg, says legislature officials have repeatedly denied their requests to offer an invocation before sessions. They further allege that state police officers have intimidated them into standing during prayers in the statehouse, which they contend is also discriminatory. The coalition is seeking the right to lead an opening prayer in the legislature.
The plaintiffs claim that, though they do not believe in God and are not necessarily a religious group in the traditional sense, the courts have long held that atheists enjoy the same free exercise rights as any believer.
“There are other cases that have explained that atheism and humanism are religions entitled to the same protections,” Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told a Pennsylvania ABC affiliate.
“Imams have offered the prayer, rabbis have offered the prayer, it’s an open forum for folks of different religions to offer the prayer, but the common thread is that it’s a prayer,” State Rep. Stephen Bloom said in rebuttal to local press. “You have to believe in God to offer a prayer because a prayer is speaking to God.”
The lawsuit names House Speaker Michael Turzai, the legislature parliamentarian, and five members of the body.
The U.S. Supreme Court has been generally friendly to the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayers, consistently finding that the practice has a unique history in the United States. In Marsh v. Chambers, the justices sanctioned a state-funded chaplain for the Nebraska state legislature in 1983. The Court also upheld the practice of opening government meetings with explicitly sectarian prayers in Town of Greece v. Galloway in 2014.
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