Pa. House's 'Year of the Bible' resolution challenged in federal court

By Jon Campisi | Mar 28, 2012

A resolution passed by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in January declaring 2012 the “Year of the Bible” has drawn criticism from separation-of-church-and-state proponents.

It also caused two Philadelphia Democratic lawmakers who originally voted in favor of the resolution to withdraw their support.

Now, the resolution is the subject of litigation in federal court.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania March 26 seeking to have a federal judge in Harrisburg declare the resolution unconstitutional.

The complaint, which was filed by Doylestown, Pa. attorney Lawrence M. Otter and Madison, Wisc. lawyer Richard L. Bolton, of the firm Boardman & Clark, claims that the resolution declaring 2012 to be the “Year of the Bible,” citing the influence of the holy book on the commonwealth’s and the nation’s roots, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as Article I, section 3 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

“Plaintiff further requests that the Court enjoin the defendants from further enactments and publication of resolutions establishing and endorsing a state-sanctioned religion,” the lawsuit states.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which the lawsuit claims has more than 17,500 members throughout the nation, states that its members oppose “governmental speech endorsing religion because they are made to feel as if they are political outsiders.”

The suit lists a number of members who reside in Pennsylvania who feel as though they would be specifically affected by the legislative action.

The defendants named in the lawsuit are Pennsylvania Rep. Rick Saccone, the Allegheny County Republican who sponsored the resolution; Clancy Myer, the state House’s parliamentarian; and Anthony Frank Barbush, the chief clerk of the state House of Representatives.

“The House Resolution declaring 2012 as the Year of the Bible in Pennsylvania has been very divisive because of its exclusive endorsement of the Bible and its teachings as constituting the state-sanctioned religion of Pennsylvania, the principles of which allegedly should be studied and acted upon by government officials and the public,” the lawsuit states.

The text of the resolution contains declarations such as, “Whereas, The Bible, the word of God, has made a unique contribution in shaping the United States as a distinctive and blessed nation and people,” “Whereas, Deeply held religious convictions spring from the holy scriptures led to the early settlement of our country,” and “Whereas, Renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people.”

The complaint alleges that the resolution is actually designed to give “actual endorsement of religion, and more particularly, endorsement of the theology of the Christian Bible.”

Saccone, the resolution’s prime sponsor, has stated in news accounts that “the notion that God or the Bible was ever separate from government in this regard is a denial of history,” the lawsuit claims.

The resolution violates the constitution’s Establishment Clause, the suit claims, because the First Amendment prohibits governmental endorsement of religion, even on a “majoritarian basis voted upon by elected politicians.”

“The self-executing proscriptions of the Establishment Clause are not contingent upon the votes of politicians as to whether to obey the Constitution,” the complaint states. “H.R. 535 violates the Constitution by expressly giving the government’s endorsement to religion, and not just religion in general, but specifically to the Judeo-Christian principles of the Bible.”

The complaint goes on to state that the resolution is “particularly ironic” in Pennsylvania, which was established by William Penn as a refuge for those seeking religious tolerance. Penn, the suit states, “welcomed religious dissenters and non-believers of many different persuasions.”

In addition to seeking to have a judge enjoin the defendants from further publication and public distribution of the resolution, the lawsuit seeks declaratory judgment that Pennsylvania’s public officials are subject to the requirements of the Establishment Clause; that the theocratic principles of the Bible do not constitute the official, preferred or endorsed religion of Pennsylvania; that the government of Pennsylvania is not Judeo-Christian; and that the actions of the defendants violate the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs also seek attorney’s fees and other litigation costs.


The federal case number is 1:12-cv-00536-CCC. 

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