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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Pennsylvania May Name 2012 ‘Year of the Bible’

(CN) - Three Pennsylvania legislators have immunity from claims by the Freedom from Religion Foundation over the naming of 2012 as the "Year of the Bible," a federal judge ruled.

In November 2011, Pennsylvania House representative Rick Saccone, R-Jefferson Hills, introduced a resolution that declared 2012 the "Year of the Bible," "in recognition of both the formative influence of the Bible on our commonwealth and nation and our national need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures."

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed H.R. 535 unanimously in January 2012.

Two months later, Freedom from Religion Foundation, a "non-theist" Madison, Wisc.-based nonprofit that advocates for the separation of church and state, in turn sued Saccone, as well as the parliamentarian and chief clerk of the state House.

Calling the resolution an illegitimate exercise of state power, the group said it impermissibly advances, endorses and promotes a state religion, and violates both the Pennsylvania Constitution and the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Freedom From Religion requested that the court declare that the state government is not Judeo-Christian, order the defendants to publicly report the unconstitutionality of the resolution, and enjoin them from further enactment and publication of resolutions "establishing and endorsing a state-sanctioned religion."

Saccone and the other legislators, Clancy Myer and Anthony Frank Barbush, moved to dismiss on lack of standing and legislative immunity.

The immunity claim unraveled the claim, though U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner found that the foundation had standing.

"FFRF has alleged that exposure to H.R. 535 creates a 'hostile environment' that emphasizes and encourages 'the integration of Christianity into the offices of government,' and that the resolution sends the message that Christian beliefs are more legitimate in the eyes of the Commonwealth than other religions or non-religions," the 18-page opinion states. "FFRF has satisfied their burden to plead an injury-in-fact."

In a bid to overcome immunity, the foundation had tried to distinguish the resolution from "real law-making," arguing that H.R. 535 is nothing more than "gratuitous political grandstanding."

But Conner said that "FFRF cannot escape Supreme Court precedent stating that '[c]ommittee reports, resolutions, and the act of voting are equally covered.''" (Emphasis in original.)

Conner also rejected the claim that, to qualify as a legislative act, there must be some allocation of resources or regulation of behavior.

"This argument is unpersuasive," he wrote. "Courts have routinely considered many actions taken by legislators that go beyond voting for legislation to be 'legislative acts.'"

"It is pellucidly clear that resolutions, whether passed by a single house or both, whether creating legally binding obligations or not, fall squarely within the scope of absolute legislative immunity from suit," Conner added. "For this reason, defendants in this case are entitled to absolute immunity from suit, and FFRF's complaint must be dismissed."

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