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Federal Appeals Court Rules Penn. House Can Forbid Atheists From Giving Opening Prayers

August 28, 2019

Earlier this year I wrote about prayer and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives after GOP Rep. Stephanie Borowicz opened a session with a really crazy prayer to Jesus. Seriously, check it out, she really is nuts. Borowicz gave the prayer in response to the state's first Muslim representative being sworn in.

 

A year ago, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives was in the news because of prayer for a different reason. A federal judge ruled that the Pennsylvania House could no longer bar non-believers from giving the opening invocation that starts the House's sessions. At the time, Judge Christopher Conner wrote, "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."

Unfortunately, a federal appeals court just reversed last year's ruling, giving the Pennsylvania House the ability to require all guest chaplains to be theists. Friday's 2-1 decision is ridiculous for multiple reasons, including the shaky ground the majority judges based their decision on.

 

"Legislative prayer has historically served many purposes, both secular and religious. Because only theistic prayer can achieve them all, the historical tradition supports the House’s choice to restrict prayer to theistic invocations," the court wrote.

 

"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. At bottom,
legislative prayers seek 'divine guidance' in lawmaking," they continued. "They also allow the legislature to 'acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens.'"

 

Right, great job separating church and state there, guys.

 

Judge L. Felipe Restrepo, the dissenting judge, wrote, "By mandating that all guest chaplains profess a belief in a 'higher power' or God, the Pennsylvania House fails to stay 'neutral in matters of religious theory'; in effect, the Pennsylvania House 'promote[s] one . . . religious theory' – belief in God or some sort of supreme deity – 'against another' – the denial of the existence of such a deity."

 

This ruling only affects legislative prayer, and does not allow the House to discriminate against non-theists in any other way, but it sets a potentially dangerous precedent, one that could be expanded upon in the future. Once again, Christian politicians are working hard to slowly chip away at the wall separating church and state.

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