Sunday, April 30, 2017

Challenge To Pennsylvania Legislative Prayer Practices Survives Motion To Dismiss

In Fields v. Speaker of  the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, (MD PA, April 28, 2017), a Pennsylvania federal district court in a 33-page opinion refused to dismiss on the pleadings an Establishment Clause challenge to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives invocation policy.  House members may nominate "guest chaplains" to deliver an invocation at the beginning of a House session.  However House rules, as administered by the Speaker, do not permit non-theists to serve as guest chaplains. Plaintiffs are atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and freethinkers who have been denied the opportunity to deliver an invocation.  According to the court:
Plaintiffs plead a policy of religious discrimination sufficient to state a First Amendment claim.
Whether history and tradition sanctify the House‟s line of demarcation between theistic and nontheistic chaplains is a factual issue for a later day. Establishment Clause issues are inherently fact-intensive, and we must resist the academic intrigue of casting the salient inquiry too narrowly at this juncture. To the extent the parties‟ arguments evoke more nuanced constitutional questions— e.g., whether plaintiffs practice “religion” and are capable of “praying,” or whether tradition dictates that legislative prayer address a “higher power”—any such determination demands, and deserves, a fully developed record. As it stands, plaintiffs‟ challenge to the House‟s legislative prayer policy survives Rule 12 scrutiny.
The court also permitted two of the plaintiffs to move ahead with their challenge to the requirement that members of the public in attendance stand during the invocation.  On one occasion the Speaker publicly singled out plaintiffs for remaining seated.

The Court dismissed Free Exercise, Free Speech and Equal Protection challenges to the prayer policy, finding that legislative prayer is "government speech."