States map 2015 for blog Written by Don Byrd

I am a little late to these stories, but a pair of lawsuits in Pennsylvania have drawn attention in that state to issues of possible government endorsement of religion. 

In one dispute, the State House practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer has been challenged by non-theist plaintiffs who claim they were denied the right to offer an invocation because of their (lack of) religious beliefs.

The Washington Post reports:

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.”

Meanwhile, another lawsuit claims the cross in the official government seal of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh County violates the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. The Morning Call reports:

In March 2015, the commissioners defended the seal. In a unanimous resolution, they stated the cross represented Christians who settled the county. Since the cross served a historic purpose and does not serve as an official endorsement, it does not violate the Constitution, they argued.

In addition to the cross, the seal contains a heart said to symbolize Allentown, the U.S. and Pennsylvania flags, bunting, the Liberty Bell, factories and a farm scene.

These can be difficult cases to predict. Legislative prayer challenges often turn on distinctive facts surrounding that body’s invocation policy and implementation. And government seal disputes often depend on the unique history of the symbol.

Both shine a light on an important religious liberty principle that protects us all: government should not give the appearance of endorsing one religious view over another, or endorsing religion over non-religion. These are matters of conscience – soul freedom – given to each of us. When the state tips the scales, that freedom is undermined. 

When government’s recognition of religion, which is often allowed, crosses over and becomes endorsement of religion, which is not allowed, can be a fine line. But it is not required that governments push that line as far as possible.We all deserve to know that our government will treat us the same regardless of our religious beliefs, or lack of beliefs. Why not emphasize symbols and practices that are inclusive of all people?