A federal appeals court on Friday reversed a lower court decision and upheld the Pennsylvania House of Representatives policy barring atheists from delivering invocations.
A group of nontheists challenged House Speaker Mike Turzai’s policy of limiting prayers at the start of legislative sessions to guest chaplains who believe in God or a divine higher power under the Establishment, Free Exercise, Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses of our Constitution.
The decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld Turzai’s policy and stated the “theists-only” tradition does not violate the US Constitution.
As to the Establishment Clause, the court ruled that the theists-only prayer satisfies “the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking, the basis for the Supreme Court taking as a given that prayer presumes a higher power.” In regards to the Free Exercise, Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses, the court held that “legislative prayer is government speech not open to attack via those channels.”
The appeals court decision reverses last year’s ruling by a district judge who held that the invocation restrictions violated constitutional prohibitions on making laws that establish a religion.
Turzai and the other defendants had previously stated that the policy did not violate the establishment clause because it allowed people of different faiths to give the invocation and did not favor any one religion.