Federal judge dismisses challenge to Pennsylvania 'Year of the Bible' resolution

[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania [official website] on Monday dismissed [opinion, PDF] a suit challenging a Pennsylvania House Resolution declaring 2012 the "Year of the Bible" [HR 535, PDF]. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) [advocacy website] claimed that HR 535 violated the Establishment Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder]. The defendants in the case, Representatives Rick Saccone, Clancy Myer and Anthony Frank Barbush [official profiles], argued two causes for dismissal: a lack of standing under Article III [Cornell LII backgrounder] of the US Constitution, and being shielded through legislative immunity, which protects a legislator's right to speech and debate during legislative proceedings. Judge Christopher Conner held that, while the FFRF did have standing, the defendants had absolute immunity from FFRF's suit through the doctrine of legislative immunity. However, the judge also rebuked the resolution, concluding:

The vast majority of legislative resolutions are entirely appropriate and serve legitimate public purposes, such as honoring or commemorating individual achievements, notable anniversaries, Commonwealth resources, and military service and sacrifice. ... However, the court's determination that the defendants engaged in a "legislative act" for purposes of immunity should not be viewed as judicial endorsement of this resolution. It most certainly is not. ... This judicial rebuke of the resolution is not intended to impugn the religious beliefs of any citizen. To the contrary, the court's disapprobation is directed to the blatant use of legislative resources in contravention of the spirit—if not the letter—of the Establishment Clause.
The FFRF filed the suit [JURIST report] in March.

The separation of church and state has been and remains a controversial issue [JURIST op-ed] in American courts. The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled [JURIST report] in May that a lawsuit opposing a Ten Commandments monument displayed on property owned by the City of Fargo, North Dakota, may move forward. In January the US Supreme Court declined to review [JURIST report] a case concerning whether a county board of commissioners in North Carolina violated the Establishment Clause by opening its public meetings with prayers. The court's denial of certiorari in the case preserved a ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit holding [JURIST report] that that the board of commissioners violated the Establishment Clause by effectively using a public forum to endorse Christianity. Earlier that month a federal judge ordered Florida's Dixie County Courthouse to remove the Ten Commandments monument [JURIST report] displayed on the front steps of the courthouse, concluding that the monument's religious message would be interpreted to be espoused by the government. In April 2010 a federal judge in Wisconsin famously ruled [JURIST report] that Congressional legislation [text] from 1952 establishing a National Day of Prayer [advocacy website] was unconstitutional. There, in receiving a grant of summary judgment, the FFRF successfully argued that, by passing the aforementioned statute, the government had improperly endorsed religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

 

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