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Federal Court Rules Atheists May Be Barred From Giving Invocations at Pennsylvania Statehouse

The Pennsylvania State Capitol, Harrisburg, Pa., July 2019 (Toniklemm via Wikimedia Commons)

A federal appeals court ruled that atheists and others who do not believe in God can be prohibited from delivering an invocation at the Pennsylvania statehouse.

The 2 to 1 ruling from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia on Friday upheld a state House of Representatives policy that stipulates the chamber’s opening invocation may be led only by a current member of the House or “a member of a regularly established church or religious organization.”

The court found that the rules governing the opening invocation, which also require the invocation to be “respectful of all religious beliefs,” do not infringe on the First Amendment since the invocation falls under government speech and goes along with the “historical tradition of legislative prayer.”

“First, only theistic prayer can satisfy all the traditional purposes of legislative prayer. Second, the Supreme Court has long taken as given that prayer presumes invoking a higher power,” the court stated.

A lower court halted the policy last summer, ruling that there is “no justification to sanction government’s establishment of a category of favored religions — like monotheistic or theistic faiths — through legislative prayer,” but Friday’s ruling overturns that decision.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the plaintiffs who complained about the rule, panned the “disappointing ruling,” saying it gives “special privileges to people because they believe in a god.”

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