Recently, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ policy which does not allow atheists, those who don’t believe in God, to give the opening prayer. The policy “requires that the person who prays must be ‘a member of a regularly established church or religious organization.’” In a 2-1 decision, the Court ruled that the policy is constitutional.
Originally, the groups Americans United and American Atheists brought the lawsuit after a group of non-theists were denied their request to give the invocation for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Initially, U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Conner sided with the atheists and ruled that “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… through legislative prayer.”
Thankfully, the Pennsylvania House Speaker appealed the ruling which lead to the Third Circuit overruling the decision and upholding the House’s policy.
The Third Circuit wrote, “As to the Establishment Clause, we uphold the policy because only theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking, the basis for the Supreme Court taking as a given that prayer presumes a higher power.”
This makes logical sense. Non-theists, by definition, do not believe in God. So the question must be asked, to whom can they offer prayer? Doesn’t prayer necessitate a belief in a higher power? Obviously it does, and thankfully the Third Circuit agreed to a certain extent. The Court said, “A legislative body is free to open its sessions with secular invocations. We hold only that it is not required to do so.”
The Court also re-emphasized the constitutionality of legislative prayer. The opinion noted that the day after Congress proposed the First Amendment, it asked “President Washington to proclaim, ‘a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts, the many and signal favors of Almighty God.’”
In addition, the non-theists challenged the House of Representatives’ policy asking attendees to “please rise” to observe the prayer. They argued that this request was unconstitutionally coercive since it forced the attendees to feel compelled to engaging in religious conduct. The Third Circuit wrote, “As for the Speaker’s introductory request that guests ‘please rise,’ we hold that [it is] not coercive.” The Court held this for several reasons including the fact that the statement was merely a request to rise. It was not an order, nor a law. Therefore, the Court upheld the practice as constitutional.
Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty praised the ruling on Twitter. “This is a great decision that underscores the legitimate place of religion in our history and culture. Religious prayer by legislators seeking divine guidance accommodates the free exercise of religious believers without infringing the rights of the nonreligious.”
We can be grateful that the Third Circuit upheld this policy protecting legislative prayer. Small steps like this, which keep religion in our public square, are vitally important to restore the morality of our Republic. As John Adams noted, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”