Nonbelievers sue over Pennsylvania House's opening prayers



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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A group of people who don't believe in God filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday seeking to change how prayers are handled before sessions of the state House of Representatives.

The lawsuit in Harrisburg federal court said House officials have denied their requests to make an opening invocation, arguing nonbelievers are treated like a disfavored minority who 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."

Five people and three organizations — the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers Inc., the Dillsburg Area Freethinkers and the Lancaster Freethought Society — sued House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, House Parliamentarian Clancy Myer and five lawmakers who represent districts where the plaintiffs live or meet.

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. None of the five lawmaker defendants returned phone messages Thursday.

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 said, violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution's First Amendment by coercing people to participate in prayer.

"A fundamental principle of our Constitution is government officials must not pressure or coerce people to take part in religious activities in any manner," Americans United for Separation of Church and State legal director Alex Luchenitser said.

House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said the practice of pressuring people to stand during opening invocations has ended.

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, then 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."

The plaintiffs are seeking a court order that will let them give an opening invocation and will prohibit pressuring people to stand for prayers.

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This story has been corrected to show then-Speaker Sam Smith, not Mike Turzai, turned down the 2014 request and the incident with House security occurred when Smith, not Turzai, was speaker.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Mark Scolforo

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