Dillsburg nonbelievers group sues state House
A Dillsburg group of nonbelievers wants the right to make the opening invocation before sessions of the state House of Representatives, and they're suing to attain that right.
The Dillsburg Area Freethinkers are among three organizations and five individuals who filed a federal lawsuit Thursday in Harrisburg federal court against House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny; House Parliamentarian Clancy Myer; and five lawmakers who represent districts where the plaintiffs live or meet.
The lawsuit alleges House officials have denied their requests to make an opening invocation, arguing nonbelievers are treated like a disfavored minority that can be discriminated against.
“Like theists, the plaintiffs are capable of giving inspiring and moving invocations, similar to nontheistic invocations that have been given in other communities across the United States,” the lawsuit said. “There is just one significant difference between people whom the defendants allow to give opening invocations and the plaintiffs: the former believe in God, while the plaintiffs do not.”
A spokesman for the Republicans, who have majority control of the House, said they believe their policy is constitutional and comports with U.S. Supreme Court rulings about prayer during government meetings.
The plaintiffs also said two of them were pressured by the speaker and then House security officers to stand during an opening prayer. The policy of making people stand, they argue, violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment by coercing people to participate in prayer.
Group: Paul Tucker, organizer of the group, said he started Dillsburg Area Freethinkers about five years ago, and six people regularly attend their meetings.
"We talk about whatever is on our minds," said Tucker, a carpenter. "Usually about how our nonbelief is intersecting with our lives."
Tucker declined to comment on the lawsuit, referring all questions to Americans United, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for the separation of church and state.
Alex Luchenitser, the Americans United attorney representing the plaintiffs in this case, said he'd be surprised if this lawsuit gets settled outside of court, unless leadership changes, because the current leadership has made its position clear.
The plaintiffs are seeking a court order that will allow them to give an opening invocation and will prohibit pressuring people to stand for prayers.
House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said the practice of pressuring people to stand during opening invocations has ended.
Lawsuit: The lawsuit said 575 of the 678 House sessions between January 2008 and February 2016 began with an invocation. People who aren’t elected representatives delivered it 265 times — 238 by Christian clergy, 23 by rabbis, three in the Muslim tradition and one who was not affiliated with a religion and gave a monotheistic prayer.
The suit said the speaker at that time, Republican Sam Smith, of Jefferson County, turned down a request by the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers to deliver the invocation, telling them in a September 2014 letter that the House only honors “requests from religious leaders of any regularly established church or congregation.”
Reps. Mike Regan, R-Dillsburg; Kevin Schreiber, D-York City; and Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, are specifically named in the lawsuit, but Luchenitser said the lawsuit is targeting their official positions, not the individuals.
Schreiber and Regan could not be reached for comment, while Grove said he hadn't had a chance to look at the lawsuit as of Friday morning.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.