September 4, 2019


State House Can Continue Blocking Atheists from Delivering Opening Prayer


It all began back in August 2014 when atheist Carl Silverman asked the PA State House if he could deliver the opening prayer.  His request was turned down, citing House Rule 17 which provides that the first order of business shall be prayer by the chaplain.  This same Rule provides that the Chaplain shall be a member of a regularly establishes church or religious organization or shall be a member of the House.

Thirteen months later enter Americans United for Separation of Church and State who was representing members of the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, Dillsburg Area Freethinkers and Lancaster Freethought Society who brought a lawsuit against the House Parliamentarian Clancy Myer, House Speaker Mike Turzai and five other House members. 

“When governmental bodies open their meetings with invocations, no viewpoints should be excluded,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “That includes people who do not believe in God. No one should be made to feel like a second-class citizen by their government.”   In August 2018, U.S. Middle District Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner ruled that the State House’s current guest chaplain policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and “purposely discriminates among invocation presenters on the basis of religion and thus exceeds the constitutional boundaries of legislative prayer.”

House Speaker Mike Turzai appealed that decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and a decision was recently handed down that upholds the Pennsylvania House’s “policy of limiting prayers at the start of legislative sessions to guest chaplains who believe in God or a divine or higher power.”  Citing the June decision by the US Supreme Court in regards to the Peace Cross in Bladensburg, MD, the 2-1 majority noted that the policy did not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment because it fits within the “historical tradition of legislative prayer” and counts as government speech that is protected from a free speech or equal protection challenge.

Action Steps

Thank House Speaker Mike Turzai for defending the centuries-old tradition of opening the House sessions in prayer.  He can be reached at his Harrisburg office (717) 772-9943 or his district office (412) 369-2230 or email at

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