Federal judge, citing immunity, dismisses complaint against Pa. officials over 'Year of the Bible' resolution

By Jon Campisi | Oct 4, 2012

A federal judge in Harrisburg has dismissed a lawsuit against three Pennsylvania officials

involved in the drafting and passing of a controversial resolution proclaiming 2012 the “Year of the Bible.”

In an 18-page memorandum, U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner, of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss a complaint that had been filed in March by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based civil rights organization.

Conner wrote that he had no choice but to dismiss the suit because the defendants are entitled to legislative immunity.

However, that didn’t stop the federal jurist from chastising the defendants, a Republican state representative from Allegheny County, the state House parliamentarian and the chief clerk of the House of Representatives.

“The vast majority of legislative resolutions are entirely appropriate and serve legitimate public purposes, such as honoring or commemorating individual achievements, notable anniversaries, Commonwealth resources, and military service and sacrifice,” Conner wrote. “However, the court’s determination that the defendants engaged in a ‘legislative act’ for purposes of immunity should not be viewed as judicial endorsement of this resolution. It most certainly is not.”

The plaintiff had sought declaratory relief that H.R. 535, a resolution unanimously passed in the House on Jan. 24, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United State Constitution, and Article I, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The plaintiff sought an injunction enjoining the defendants from further enactment and publication of resolutions “establishing and endorsing a state-sanctioned religion.”

The defendants had argued that the Foundation lacks standing to bring the action, and that even if it has standing, the defendants are nonetheless shielded from suit by the doctrine of legislative immunity.

In his memorandum, Conner went on to write that the so-called “Year of the Bible” resolution is at best a “benign attempt to reaffirm the underlying principles of the Reagan proclamation of 1983. At worst, it is premeditated pandering designed to provide a reelection sound bite for use by members of the General Assembly.”

Regardless of the motivation behind the resolution, Conner wrote, “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,” the judge wrote. “That it passed unanimously is even more alarming.”

Conner wrote that at a time when the commonwealth 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.”

Nevertheless, Conner still ruled that the defendants – state Rep. Rick Saccone, Clancy Myer and Anthony Frank Barbush – are entitled to absolute legislative immunity.

In a news release on its website, the Freedom From Religion Foundation said it is considering whether or not to appeal the judicial decision.

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