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Court Rules It's OK to Ban Atheists From 'Opening Prayer' at State Legislature

Image credit: (AP Photo)
Image credit: (AP Photo)

A federal appeals court has ruled that a Pennsylvania House of Representative's policy banning atheists from offering the 'opening prayer' does not violate the Constitution.

A number of atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers sued the Pennsylvania House in 2016 citing that restricting non-believers from the opening prayer violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

In 2018, US Middle District Judge Christopher Conner supported non-believers challenging the policy. Judge Connor said it was "the content of the prayers, rather than their theistic or nontheistic nature, that matters."

But the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court's decision, declaring that opening prayers for governmental sessions are reserved for guest chaplains who believe in God or a higher power.

The plaintiffs in the case wanted to offer their own nontheistic "prayers" touching on themes such as equality, unity, hope, tolerance, and justice. But because they didn't believe in a higher power, they were turned away.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation had petitioned against the ban claiming it violates free speech, free exercise of religion and equal protection.

Limiting opening prayer to only believers fits within the longstanding customs of Congress.

A lawyer who argued the case said, "Opening sessions with prayer dates back to the earliest days of our commonwealth and the current House practice is simply a continuation of that historical tradition."

The Pennsylvania state House provided a permanent chaplain for opening prayer from 1865 until 1994. After that, guest chaplains or lawmakers could open the session.

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