Atheists May Not Lead Prayer In State House, Court Claims

In a victory for people of religion who didn’t know it was in the works, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that atheists are not eligible to lead prayers before legislative sessions because they do not believe in a higher power, something required in order to pray.

In a 2–1 decision handed down Aug. 23, a panel of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state House of Representatives may legally exclude nontheists from invoking prayer before legislative sessions.

“[W]e uphold the policy because only theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking,” Judge Thomas L. Ambro wrote, “the basis for the Supreme Court taking as a given that prayer presumes a higher power.”

The case originated in Pennsylvania when a group of state lawmakers sought to keep atheists from horning in on the way sessions are started.

A group of secular humanists, Unitarian Universalists and freethinkers sued Pennsylvania lawmakers in 2016 over its policy, claiming it violates their rights under the First Amendment’s Establishment, Free Exercise, Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses.

According to the court opinion, a congressman or a guest chaplain opens most legislative sessions with prayer. Requirements for guest chaplains include membership in “a regularly established church or religious organization,” and opening prayer is defined as a moment “to seek divine intervention in their work and their lives.”

Past guest chaplains have included 238 Christian clergy, 23 Jewish rabbis, three Muslim imams and one monotheist. The Pennsylvania House policy on guest chaplains necessarily excludes nontheists because they don’t profess belief in the divine, and therefore their invocation would not fit their definition of prayer, which would be more than mere mentions of “equality, unity, decency, hope, peace, compassion, tolerance, and justice” — topics that would be touched on in atheist invocations.

Invocations are not the same as prayer and it took a court decision to make that statement definitive.

Think about that.