Fields v. Speaker of the Pa. House of Representatives

Decision Date28 April 2017
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 1:16-CV-1764.
Citation251 F.Supp.3d 772
Parties Brian FIELDS, et al., Plaintiffs v. SPEAKER OF THE PENNSYLVANIA HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, et al., Defendants
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Pennsylvania

Alex J. Luchenitser, Andrew L. Nellis, Carmen N. Green, Richard B. Katskee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Washington, DC, Allen C. Warshaw, Mechanicsburg, PA, Eric O. Husby, Law Office of Eric O. Husby, Esq., Tampa, FL, for Plaintiffs.

Karl S. Myers, Mark E. Chopko, Spencer R. Short, Johnathan F. Bloom, Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young, LLP, Philadelphia, PA, for Defendants.


Chief Judge Conner

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives commences legislative sessions with an opening invocation delivered by either a member of the House or a guest chaplain. Pursuant to an internal House rule, a guest chaplain must be "a member of a regularly established church or religious organization."1 The Speaker of the House interprets this rule to exclude "non-adherents" and "nonbelievers" from the guest chaplain program.2 Plaintiffs are atheist, agnostic, Secular Humanist, and freethinking individuals who have been denied the opportunity to deliver an opening invocation due to the nontheistic nature of their beliefs. Plaintiffs challenge the exclusionary House policy under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

I. Background

Brian Fields, Paul Tucker, Deana Weaver, Scott Rhoades, and Joshua Neiderhiser are nontheists who actively adhere to and practice their respective beliefs.3 As employed herein, our nontheist designation includes atheists, agnostics, Secular Humanists, freethinkers, and other persons who do not believe in a deity.4 Many features of plaintiffs' respective ideologies parallel the practice of traditional theistic religions: plaintiffs assemble to explore and discuss their beliefs, study texts and films anent their belief systems, observe annual celebrations, and coordinate service activities and community outreach.5

Plaintiffs are leaders in their belief communities. Fields is president of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, Tucker is founder and chief organizer of Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, and Rhoades is founder and president of Lancaster Freethought Society.6 These nontheist organizations and their leaders represent the functional equivalent of traditional religious congregations in the lives of their members.7 For example, Rhoades and Neiderhiser are ordained Humanist Celebrants who regularly perform wedding ceremonies and memorial services.8

Each of the individual plaintiffs would like to deliver an invocation before the House.9 Plaintiffs intend to offer uplifting and inspirational messages—to champion such unobjectionable themes as equality, unity, and common decency; and to demonstrate that nontheists can offer meaningful commentary on morality and reflections valuable to public governance.10

A. The Opening Invocation

The House convenes daily legislative sessions which are open to the public and streamed live on the House website.11 Members of the public attending the sessions observe proceedings from the visitor gallery located in a balcony at the rear of the House chamber.12 Fields and Rhoades have attended daily sessions in the past and intend to do so in the future.13

Before the opening invocation, the Speaker directs members of the House and visitors in the gallery to rise.14 Members of the House and most visitors oblige,15 but Fields and Rhoades apparently prefer to remain seated.16 On one occasion, the Speaker publicly singled out Fields and Rhoades and ordered them to rise for the invocation.17 When they refused, the Speaker directed a legislative security officer to "pressure" them to stand.18 Plaintiffs believe that the Speaker's direction to rise coerces them (and others) to recognize the validity of religious beliefs with which they disagree.19

B. The Guest Chaplain Policy

House members may nominate guest chaplains by submitting a request to the Speaker's office.20 The request must identify the proposed chaplain's name, house of worship or affiliated organization, and contact information.21 The Speaker reviews and selects guest chaplains from among the submitted nominees.22 The Speaker then sends a form letter to selected chaplains which asks them to "craft a prayer that is respectful of all religious beliefs."23 The Speaker does not review the content of an opening invocation before it is delivered.24 Guest chaplains receive a commemorative gavel and a photograph with the House member who nominated them.25

Between January 8, 2008 and February 9, 2016, the House convened 678 daily sessions and began 575 of them with an invocation.26 Members of the House delivered 310 of those invocations, and guest chaplains delivered the remaining 265 invocations.27 Of the guest chaplains, 238 were Christian clergy, twenty-three were Jewish rabbis, and three were of the Muslim faith.28 Only one guest chaplain was not "recognizably affiliated" with a particular religion, but that person nonetheless delivered a monotheistic message.29 According to the complaint, no invocation was free of theistic content, and none had content associated with faiths other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.30

On August 12, 2014, Weaver emailed a request to her House representative on behalf of Dillsburg Area Freethinkers seeking to deliver an invocation.31 Two weeks later, Carl Silverman, a member of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, wrote his House representative, requesting that either he or Fields be permitted to deliver an invocation on behalf of their organization.32 The Speaker denied Silverman's request by letter dated September 25, 2014, stating that the House is not "required to allow non-adherents or nonbelievers the opportunity to serve as chaplains."33 Weaver's representative forwarded the Silverman response to her via email on September 26, 2014.34 Thereafter, the House amended its General Operating Rules to include House Rule 17.35 Per the new rule: "The Chaplain offering the prayer shall be a member of a regularly established church or religious organization or shall be a member of the House of Representatives."36

On January 9, 2015, plaintiffs' counsel wrote to the Speaker and House Parliamentarian requesting that a representative of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers be permitted to serve as guest chaplain.37 In a response dated January 15, 2015, the Parliamentarian denied Pennsylvania Nonbelievers' request, citing House Rule 17.38 On August 6, 2015, plaintiffs' counsel sent a final letter to all defendants requesting that Fields, Tucker, Weaver, Rhoades, or Neiderhiser, or a representative of their organizations, be given an opportunity to deliver an invocation.39 By separate letter of the same date, counsel asked the Speaker and Parliamentarian to cease directing House visitors to stand for invocations.40 The Parliamentarian denied plaintiffs' guest chaplaincy request by letter dated September 9, 2015.41 Plaintiffs received no response to their letter concerning the directive to rise for opening invocations.42

C. Procedural History

Plaintiffs commenced this action by filing a complaint on August 25, 2016.43 Plaintiffs name as defendants the Speaker of the House, the Parliamentarian of the House, and the Representatives of Pennsylvania House Districts 92, 95, 97, 193, and 196.44 Defendants are named in their official capacities alone. Plaintiffs claim that the House policy of preferring theistic over nontheistic religions contravenes the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiffs request declaratory judgment as to the constitutionality of House Rule 17 (as interpreted by the Speaker) and the House practices of favoring theists to nontheists and directing visitors to rise for opening invocations.45 Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief requiring the House to permit plaintiffs to deliver nontheistic invocations, prohibiting defendants from discriminating against nontheistic speakers, and enjoining the Speaker from directing visitors to rise for invocations.46

Defendants moved to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint in extenso ,47 and the parties thoroughly briefed defendants' motion.48 The court convened oral argument on February 22, 2017,49 and the motion is ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standards

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) provides that a court may dismiss a claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.50 Such jurisdictional challenges take of one two forms: (1) parties may levy a "factual" attack, arguing that one or more of the pleading's factual allegations are untrue, removing the action from the court's jurisdictional ken; or (2) they may assert a "facial" challenge, which assumes the veracity of the complaint's allegations but nonetheless argues that a claim is not within the court's jurisdiction.51 In either instance, it is the plaintiff's burden to establish jurisdiction.52

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.53 When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief."54 In addition to reviewing the facts contained in the complaint, the court may also consider "matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case."55

Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide "the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests."56 To test the sufficiency of the complaint, the court conducts a three-step inquiry.57 In the first step, "the court must ‘tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.’ "58 Next, the factual and legal elements of a claim must be...

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6 cases
  • Fields v. Speaker of the Pa. House of Representatives
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • August 23, 2019 selected, he or she is told to craft a prayer "respectful of all religious beliefs." Fields v. Speaker of the Pa. House of Representatives , 251 F. Supp. 3d 772, 777 (M.D. Pa. 2017) ( Fields I ). The 203 members of the House "com[e] from a wide variety of faiths," so "efforts to deliver ......
  • Williamson v. Brevard Cnty.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Middle District of Florida
    • September 30, 2017
    ...Fourteenth Amendment." 104 F.Supp.3d at 891.The most recent discussion of this issue appears in Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 251 F.Supp.3d 772 (M.D. Pa. 2017). The Pennsylvania House of Representatives opens its sessions with an invocation delivered by eit......
  • Bormuth v. Cnty. of Jackson
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • September 6, 2017
    ...reverent in the face of Bormuth's protest to the contrary. See, e.g. , Fields v. Speaker of the Penn. House of Representatives , 251 F. Supp. 3d 772, 776, 788, 2017 WL 1541665, at *2, 11 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 28, 2017) (plaintiffs plausibly pled a violation of the Establishment Clause in a legisla......
  • Fields v. Speaker of the Pa. House of Representatives, CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:16-CV-1764
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Middle District of Pennsylvania
    • August 29, 2018
    ...Rule 12(b) opinion examined the Supreme Court's legislative prayer jurisprudence in extenso . Fields v. Speaker of the Pa. House of Reps., 251 F.Supp.3d 772, 784-87 (M.D. Pa. 2017) (Conner, C.J.). Several salient principles must be reiterated in order to address the parties' Rule 56 argumen......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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