HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A group of people who don't believe in God filed a federal lawsuit Thursday that seeks to change how prayers are handled before sessions of the Pennsylvania 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 — Pennsylvania Nonbelievers Inc., 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.
The plaintiffs also said two of them were pressured by Turzai 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," said Washington, D.C., lawyer Alex Luchenitser, the lead counsel.
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.
It said Turzai 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."
They are seeking a court order that will let them give an opening invocation and to prohibit Turzai from making people stand for prayers.