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Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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House ordered to let non-theists give opening invocations

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Aug 31, 2018 7:57 PM
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Under current House policy, invocations must come from people who are members of established religious organizations. (Photo by AP)

 

(Harrisburg) -- Pennsylvania's House of Representatives may have to stop barring non-religious people from giving the chamber's customary pre-session invocation.

A federal judge has decided the chamber's rule violates the US Constitution's Establishment Clause--which prohibits governments from allowing one religious view, but not another.

At the center of the argument over the state House's opening ceremony is a question: what makes a prayer a prayer?

In his decision, U.S. Middle District Judge Christopher Conner said it doesn't matter whether there's a higher power involved. It is, he wrote, "the content of the prayers, rather than their theistic or nontheistic nature, that matters."

House Republican leaders don't agree. Spokesman Steve Miskin said they're well within the Establishment Clause because they allow invocations from a variety of religions.

He said drawing the line at non-theists is different--arguing, "by definition, prayer is to a higher power."

Also, he said, it's tradition.

"Since December of 1682, we've been opening our session with a prayer. And that precedent, we expect and we hope, will continue."

Connor's opinion covered that, too. He said letting atheists and other non-theists say the invocation won't break any tradition--or go against what the constitution permits.  

"Seeking to include secular or nontheist invocations does not automatically impugn the constitutionality of legislative prayer," he wrote. "To hold otherwise implies that "prayer" in the legislative prayer context must be defined as a theistic invocation, which of course is not so."

The House didn't have an established policy on non-theists giving the opening invocation until 2014, when a member of the Dillsburg Area Free Thinkers requested to speak.

Then-Speaker Sam Smith amended the rules to say the invocation has to come from a "a member of a regularly established church or religious organization."

The House plans to appeal Judge Conner's decision.

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