Back in August of 2014, atheist Carl Silverman asked the Pennsylvania House of Representatives if he could deliver the opening invocation. He received a rejection the following month from Speaker Samuel H. Smith, who explained that invocations could only be delivered by people who believed in God:
Nowhere [in the Supreme Court decision of Greece v. Galloway] did we see any language which would require legislative bodies to allow nonbelievers to address the opening of legislative bodies in lieu of an opening prayer by a regular chaplain. It is our opinion, that while the Court encouraged a diversity of prayer givers, we do not believe that government bodies are required to allowed non-adherents or nonbelievers the opportunity to serve as chaplains.
In September of 2015, even with Americans United for Separation of Church and State running interference, House Parliamentarian Clancy Myer reiterated that idea that only theists could give the invocation:
House Rule 17 provides, inter alia, that the first order of business shall be prayer by the chaplain… This same Rule provides that the Chaplain shall be a member of a regularly establishes church or religious organization or shall be a member of the House.
Accordingly, we cannot approve your request.
That argument, however, hasn’t worked anywhere else. We have seen atheists, Satanists, and Pagans deliver countless invocations across the nation since the Greece v. Galloway ruling. Why should Pennsylvania be any different?
They can’t be. And that’s why several members of the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, and Lancaster Freethought Society — supported by AU and American Atheists — filed a federal lawsuit today against Myer, current House Speaker Mike Turzai, and five other House members.
“When governmental bodies open their meetings with invocations, no viewpoints should be excluded,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “That includes people who do not believe in God. No one should be made to feel like a second-class citizen by their government.”
Said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser: “Just like people who believe in God, atheists and Humanists are capable of delivering inspiring and moving invocations. There is no good reason for the House to exclude them.”
“This is about fairness and equality,” said Amanda Knief, American Atheists National Legal and Public Policy Director. “If the House wants to have invocations, they can’t simply exclude an invocation that would represent the more-than 2.5 million nonreligious Pennsylvanians.”
“It is long past time for the Pennsylvania House to stop treating atheists like second-class citizens,” said David Silverman, President of American Atheists. “This case could have been resolved by simply allowing everyone to participate, but it seems that the leadership of the House is more interested in preserving privilege for religious citizens than truly representing all Pennsylvanians.”
The lawsuit also includes examples of the invocations the atheists wanted to deliver, like this one from Pennsylvania Nonbelievers President Brian Fields, a plaintiff in the case:
Thank you for inviting me to speak today.
Our commonwealth was founded on the principles of tolerance, respect, and equality. As we gather, let us fully consider each citizen of this commonwealth as equals in the eyes of the law. May reason and rationality guide our decisions, and may those decisions be considered to be in the best interests of all of us.
We are a commonwealth of many different people working together. We are a commonwealth of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, agnostics, atheists and many, many others. We may disagree in many respects, but we can all agree here that our laws are the foundation of our civil society. To that end, I ask that those gathered here today remember that the reason that society works is the fair and judicious application of those laws discussed here.
To close, I would like to offer the words of Albert Einstein: “Nothing truly valuable can be achieved except by the unselfish cooperation of many individuals.”
This is the sort of invocation the PA House leaders find so awful that they forbid it from being delivered in their chambers.
Remember: This is not about special treatment. This is about having the same opportunities as Christians, Muslims, and everyone else in the state who is allowed to deliver a government invocation without a problem.
Pennsylvania officials are discriminating against atheists. It’s up to the courts to stop them.