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Gratz President Cited in Landmark Religious Freedom Case

MELROSE PARK, Pa.—A U.S. District Court judge cited Dr. Paul Finkelman, president of Gratz College, a number of times in a ruling that upholds religious liberty in Pennsylvania.

Christopher C. Conner, chief judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, on Aug. 29 ruled against the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in a case that questioned the constitutionality of a policy limiting who can pray at the beginning of legislative sessions. Chief Judge Conner relied heavily on an expert report from Dr. Finkelman, president of Gratz College, citing him four times by name and his report a few more times in the 36-page opinion.

The House opens most of its daily legislative sessions with a prayer or invocation delivered either by a House member or an invited guest chaplain. It maintains a policy that requires guest chaplains to be members of “a regularly established church or religious organization” and to subscribe to a belief in God or a divine power.

In his ruling, Chief Judge Conner found that the guest chaplain policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by purposefully discriminating against individuals on the basis of religion. The policy denies individuals with nontheistic beliefs the opportunity to deliver an invocation before the House, he wrote in his opinion.

This policy “categorically excludes those who would present an uplifting message of hope, mutual respect, and peace yet—based upon their nontheistic beliefs—would fail to incorporate theistic entreaties to a divine or higher power,” Chief Judge Conner wrote. He also found that, before it changed its policy in early 2017, the House unconstitutionally coerced visitors to standing during the opening prayer and thereby participate in a religious exercise.

Dr. Finkelman, a legal historian who has written extensively on issues of civil and religious rights, generated a comprehensive report detailing the use of chaplains by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives—and finding no historical evidence of nontheists requesting or being denied the opportunity to pray in either chamber of Congress.

Dr. Finkelman’s report notes that when Congress first created chaplaincies in 1789, it passed a resolution that sought to reflect religious diversity. Neither federal nor state legislative history supports the intentional exclusion of nontheistic guest chaplains but, in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, nontheists likely did not let their beliefs become public because of the threat of imprisonment or “severe physical punishment.”

Dr. Finkelman noted that this case “expands religious liberty in Pennsylvania, and hopefully the whole nation, by protecting the spiritual and intellectual beliefs of all Americans.” He also noted the irony of the legislature’s policy.

“Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn, who was jailed in England for his refusal to support the established church and for his public preaching,” Dr. Finkelman said. “He established the Pennsylvania colony as a haven for all people, of all beliefs. He would have been appalled by legislature discriminating against residents of the state because of their beliefs.” 

Even more ironic, Dr. Finkelman said, is Pennsylvania’s Revolution-era history.

“Benjamin Franklin, the most famous citizen of the state, was not a member of any organized church, and was uncertain about the existence of God,” he said. “Before this case, the state legislature would not have allowed Franklin to give an invocation.”

The case was brought by seven nontheist Pennsylvania residents who desire to deliver an opening invocation before the House. The Plaintiffs—joined by groups including Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, Inc., and the Philadelphia Ethical Society—claim that such invocations would not proselytize or disparage any faith. Instead, the prayers would be “positive, uplifting, unifying, and respectful toward all.”

Four of the plaintiffs are ordained clergy, clergy leaders or ministers.

The court granted partial summary judgment, declaratory judgment and permanent injunctive relief to the plaintiffs. Defendants are expected to appeal.

Click here for a copy of the ruling.