Thursday, August 30, 2018

Excluding Non-Theists As Legislative Guest Chaplains Violates Establishment Clause

In Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, (MD PA, Aug. 29, 2018), a Pennsylvania federal district court held that the guest chaplain policy of Pennsylvania's House of Representatives violates the Establishment Clause.  The legislative chamber's policy allows invocations to be given only by  individuals who adhere to, or are members of a religious organization that subscribes to, a belief in “God” or a “divine” or “higher” power. The House Speaker and Parliamentarian refused to permit a non-theist to serve as a guest chaplain to deliver an invocation. The court said in part:
That history has tolerated the natural prevalence of theistic legislative prayer is hardly evidence that the Framers would abide deliberate and categorical exclusion of nontheists. Accordingly, the House’s prayer practice finds no refuge in history and tradition....
In light of this nation’s vastly diverse religious tapestry, there is no justification to sanction government’s establishment of a category of favored religions—like monotheistic or theistic faiths—through legislative prayer.
The court also held:
The House’s pre-2017 opening invocation practice, which coerces visitors to stand during the opening prayer and thereby participate in a religious exercise, likewise offends the Establishment Clause.
Americans United issued a press release announcing the decision.