Pennsylvania House CAN BAN atheist prayers, appeals court rules

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In a victory for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a federal appeals court reversed a lower court decision that prevented the legislature from banning invocations offered by atheists.

The Friday decision by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a district judge who sided with atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and humanists who claimed the House policy was unconstitutional.

On a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court said the policy did not violate the First Amendment and the ban is consider protected government speech. In making its ruling, the court referenced the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the controversial Bladensburg Peace Cross case.

The Bladensburg Peace Cross case was brought by an atheist group, the American Humanist Association, in an attempt to have a 90-year-old Peace Cross removed from public land in Maryland, claiming its lawn-maintenance and upkeep was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. By a vote of 7-2, the court ruled the Cross did not violate the First Amendment.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals saw the similarity between the two cases.

“Indeed,” the appellate court wrote, “our Court just reiterated the ‘strong presumption of constitutionality’ for practices like the one before us.”

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