Pa. House spends $1.1 million to win court battle to preserve opening prayer tradition

State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz delivers an invocation on March 25, 2019, in the state House. (Screenshot from video)

State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz delivers an invocation on March 25, 2019, in the state House. (Screenshot from video)

This PennLive article appeared on PA Post.

The Rev. Carl Janicki of St. Genevieve Church of Flourtown, Montgomery County, offered the opening prayer on Wednesday in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives with House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, standing by his side.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives went to federal court to maintain an opening prayer that invokes a higher power and it came at a high cost to taxpayers.

When all the legal bills were tallied for the lawsuit that played out over three years, the amount paid to the Philadelphia law firm of Stradley Ronan totaled more than $1.1 million, according to House Speaker Mike Turzai’s office.

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The House’s fight against atheists and non-believers who challenged its prayer policy was successful. It ended in the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals with a 2-1 ruling in August that reversed a U.S. Middle Court judge’s decision from last year that found it to be unconstitutional.

FILE PHOTO: Shown is the Pennsylvania House of Representatives chamber Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in Harrisburg, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

The Third Circuit Court decided that giving the opening invocation that presumes a higher power didn’t violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

Quoting from that opinion, Turzai, R-Allegheny County, said in an interview with PennLive on Wednesday, “Only theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking.”

On Oct. 21, Turzai resumed the chamber’s practice of inviting in a guest chaplain to offer the opening prayer.

After the guest chaplain policy was blocked, Turzai had assigned the invocation duty to House members, but even that wasn’t without controversy.

Earlier this year, Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton County, offered a fervent Christian prayer on the day the chamber’s first Muslim woman was sworn into office.

Turzai said the House’s tradition of opening the legislative day session with an invocation to a higher power began centuries ago. Asked about the expense involved in defending the prayer tradition, he said, “As Speaker of the House, we were going to defend the longstanding tradition of beginning the legislative day with a prayer.”

Turzai declined to answer further direct questions about the matter, including one about whether the rest of the chamber was alerted to the cost of defending the policy.

Deana Weaver, of Carroll Township, York County, was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and was shocked by the amount the House spent on the lawsuit. The member of the Dillsburg Area Freethinkers has twice delivered the opening prayer in the state Senate.

“Our money is easy for them to spend and our opinions are just as easy for them to negate. Ain’t that a shame,” she said. “I would like to be flattered that it was just so important to them to keep me quiet because that means that what I have to say is of value.”

Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State and lead counsel on that case, said the nontheists remain disappointed by the courts’ decision but point out the House could still change its policy to make it more inclusive like the one the Senate has. The Senate allows secular invocations at the start of session.

“The court did not say the House must discriminate against people who do not believe in a god,” he said. “We urge legislators to do the right thing and make House proceedings more representative of all Pennsylvanians by welcoming nontheists to offer invocations during House sessions.”

He said if the House had altered its policy to be more inclusive, “our clients and Pennsylvania taxpayers could have been spared this litigation” along with the expense that went with it.

PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

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