Judge chastises pandering Pennsylvania House but dismisses FFRF suit

U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner on Oct. 1 dismissed the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit against officials of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for declaring 2012 as “the Year of the Bible,” while at the same time chastening state officials for “premeditated pandering” for religious and political purposes and expressing alarm that it passed unanimously. 

FFRF sued in March after the House passed the resolution Jan. 24 that exhorted citizens and government officials to “study and apply the teachings of the Holy Scriptures.” It challenged the resolution for violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

In his Oct. 1 decision, Conner ruled that FFRF and its local plaintiffs had standing to sue, “which is a major victory in itself these days,” commented FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. Conner also ruled that House officials had absolute legislative immunity. Conner, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush, has notably also ruled against the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama.

While granting the defendants immunity for a “legislative act,” Conner noted that the immunity “should not be viewed as judicial endorsement of this resolution. It most certainly is not.”

Conner wrote, “At worst, it is premeditated pandering designed to provide a reelection sound bite for use by members of the General Assembly. But regardless of the motivation. . . its express language is proselytizing and exclusionary. . . . The court is compelled to shine a clear, bright light on this resolution because it pushes the Establishment Clause envelope behind the safety glass of legislative immunity. That is passed unanimously is even more alarming.”

The resolution passed 193-0, although several members soon expressed regret that they voted for it. It was included in a stack of “noncontroversial” resolutions that are usually approved pro forma. 

The “blatant use of legislative resources” contravened “the spirit — if not the letter — of the Establishment Clause,” Conner wrote scathingly.

He concluded, “At a time when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania faces massive public policy challenges, these resources would be far better utilized in meaningful legislative efforts for the benefit of all of the citizens of the Commonwealth, regardless of their religious beliefs.”

“The Establishment Clause, prohibits all government speech endorsing religion — without or without coercion. The government is precluded from taking a position on the merits of religion, contrary to the clear import of the Year of the Bible Resolution in this case,” said Barker.

The lawsuit was filed by attorneys Lawrence M. Otter, Doylestown, Pa., and Richard L. Bolton, Madison, Wis., on behalf of FFRF and 41 named Pennsylvania members.

In a related story, the House on Oct. 17 approved another “noncontroversial” resolution that was introduced Oct. 15 declaring October in Pennsylvania as “Prayer Month for the purpose of setting aside time to pray. . .”

FFRF sent out an Action Alert but the resolution passed 189-2.

“It’s absurd to declare that a month of prayer should be observed by all citizens, including many who never pray or certainly don’t say Christian prayers,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Even more absurd is that they didn’t pass the resolution until the month was more than half over. I guess we should at least be thankful for that.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation