Once again, Pa. House will bar nonbelievers from giving invocations

Once again, only people who believe in a higher power can give opening invocations in the state House. (Jan Murphy/PennLive)

Once again, only people who believe in a higher power can give opening invocations in the state House. (Jan Murphy/PennLive)

A battle over religion in the state House appears to be over, and the theists have won.

The conflict started in 2016, when a group of nonbelievers sued the House, arguing it couldn’t bar non-theists from giving the invocations that start each session.

For about a year, it looked like those non-theists might get their way.

Last summer a middle district judge ruled that House leaders couldn’t favor theists over non-theists, and said it didn’t matter whether their prayers were to a higher power.

He suspended the House policy banning non-theists.

But this August, a federal appeals court disagreed, ruling that the House is allowed to limit its invocations to prayer appealing to a higher power, so long as it’s not discriminating between theistic religions. The policy is going back in place this month.

GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai, whose office manages invocation speakers, saw it as a victory.

“Only theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking, and it’s a tradition that appears to have gone back to 1682,” he said.

He added, “If we did not think as a body that it was important…we would not have defended the lawsuit. We did and we won.”

The nonbelievers’ groups who filed the initial suit haven’t appealed.

Though the theists-only policy was technically upheld by the whole House, it’s not one the entire body feels strongly about.

Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democrats, said they’d be open to rethinking the rule if they took the majority.

“I think the overwhelming sentiment among most members is that that opening prayer should be including and welcoming and not off-putting to anyone,” he said.

The chamber doesn’t have “a definite stance one way or another,” he added, but said it’s “something our side of the aisle is continuing to consider, and we hope that we’ll be in a position very soon to take that to the next level.”

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