- (Photo:Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
An organization of atheists and agnostics filed a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania state House resolution that declares 2012 the "Year of the Bible," claiming the measure violates the U.S. Constitution and requesting the court to "declare that the government is not 'Judeo-Christian.'" The resolution's sponsors, however, tell The Christian Post the lawsuit is without merit, and that it would be difficult to deny the Bible's impact on the U.S.
"The Bible had a tremendous impact on our founding, as well as on all of our leaders and our history," state Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny), the resolution's author, told CP Wednesday, noting Bible passages and imagery inscribed on government buildings. "The Bible is part of our culture," he added. "You can't deny the impact the Bible had on this country."
Annie Laurie Gaylor, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF)'s co-president, insists the Bible has no bearing on the document used to govern the nation. "We have a perfectly Godless and secular Constitution," she told CP. "There's no Bible, no Jesus, no Holy Scripture in our Constitution."
The FFRF, a Madison, Wisconsin-based nonprofit consisting of some 17,500 atheists and agnostics, filed the federal lawsuit Monday challenging the constitutionality of House Resolution 535, which was passed in January and pays homage to Scripture as the United States' formative text. HR 535 claims the "word of God" and "biblical teachings inspired concepts of civil government," and that the "Bible, the word of God, has made a unique contribution in shaping the United States as a distinctive and blessed nation and people."
But the FFRF alleges the resolution violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment that prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion or showing preference of one religion over others. There have been ongoing disputes about how the clause should be applied.
In addition, the FFRF claims that the Bible "contains violent, sexist and racist models of behavior" that could potentially "encourage persons who rely on them to act in a manner harmful to them and others."
The organization is asking the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania to: find that HR 535 violates the Establishment Clause; order the defendants to discontinue further publication and distribution of the House resolution; declare that public officials in Pennsylvania are subject to the Establishment Clause; and "declare that the government is not 'Judeo-Christian.'"
The lawsuit names as defendants Rep. Saccone (R-Allegheny), as well as Clancy Myer, House parliamentarian and Anthony Frank Barbush, House clerk.
Saccone suggested to CP Wednesday that the lawsuit has no merit because God has always been a part of the U.S. government and the nation's history.
Saccone said in a statement in January that HR 535 "in no way inhibits anyone from believing in any faith or no faith." He also pointed out that Congress passed a similar resolution signed by President Ronald Reagan on Feb. 3, 1983, which declared that year as the "Year of the Bible in America."
Another sponsor of the resolution, State Rep. Jerry Stern (R-Blair), told CP that the lawsuit is "frivolous" and that it has no merit because the Establishment Clause only applies to the federal government.
"Our First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is quite clear: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,'" Stern told CP when the resolution passed in January, and he confirmed Wednesday that he stands by those words. "Our Constitution does not mention a separation principle," he said.
"We do have First Amendment rights in this country and the legislature has the right to pass resolutions or statutes as they see fit. The resolution was part of a bill and it passed, so I'm not quite sure what the point of a lawsuit would be" Stern told CP Wednesday.
Stern also suggested that the lawsuit is "brought about by some unsubstantiated fears" and that it is part of a greater nation-wide movement that is "anti religion." The lawsuit is directed "against the Bible and religion in general, possibly even (against) belief in the Almighty God" he said.
"I think that there's a movement that wants to take any references of God or the Bible out of the public sector," he said, adding that he supports "the First Amendment rights of individuals to worship God as they choose to," or not to worship.
The FFRF's Gaylor said it was "ignorant" to claim the Establishment Clause only refers to the federal government and emphasized that the 14th Amendment makes federal laws apply to states.
"I think that politicians are a little bit behind the time," Gaylor told CP. Also, Pennsylvania's Constitution is clear about forbidding "state religion," she added. Gaylor said that if a state were to establish a "Month of the Quran," there would be outcry, and that the FFRF represent that outcry. HR 535 is "distorting our secular heritage," she claimed.
The organization's members suggest that the "Year of the Bible" resolution is discriminatory toward other religions and "sends a message of Christian endorsement and disparagement to nonbelievers." The lawsuit claims the resolution "sends a message to the citizens of Pennsylvania, including (the foundation's) members, that Christian beliefs are more legitimate in the eyes of the state than other systems of belief and thought, which constitute matters of individual free conscience."
The FFRF claims its members speak in the name of "individuals [who] oppose governmental speech endorsing religion because they are made to feel as if they are political outsiders," as expressed in a statement.
Two other atheist organizations also attacked the resolution earlier this month by putting out a billboard that suggested that the Bible supports slavery.