HARRISBURG - A state House resolution declaring 2012 the "Year of the Bible" in Pennsylvania violates the U.S. Constitution and should be immediately withdrawn, a national association representing atheists and agnostics is contending in court.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit Monday in federal court in Harrisburg, saying the resolution amounts to an official government endorsement of religion - and Christianity, in particular. That, the group contends, violates the Constitution's establishment clause, which bars government from preferring one religion over another.
"The Establishment Clause prohibits the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, its members and officers, from telling citizens which God to recognize, or which holy book to 'study,' much less directing citizens to 'apply its teachings'," the lawsuit contends.
The one-page resolution, which unanimously passed the House in late January, recognizes what it calls the Bible's "formative influence" in the founding of the nation and the state. It says that as the nation "faces great challenges," there should be a recognition of a "national need to study and apply" Scripture.
The resolution's sponsor, State Rep. Rick Saccone (R., Allegheny), could not be reached for comment Monday. But Saccone said in a previous interview that religion was ingrained in the state's history - he pointed to words from Scripture emblazoned on the walls of the House chamber - and that the nation's founders turned to the Bible for inspiration.
Shortly after the resolution passed, two Philadelphia Democrats, Reps. Mark Cohen and Babette Josephs, said that they had unwittingly voted for it and that it was a mistake.
The two said they were thrown by the resolution's having been labeled "noncontroversial," which meant it did not go through the committee and debate process that accompanies most legislation.
The suit by the Wisconsin-based group, which claims more than 17,500 members nationwide and at least 599 in Pennsylvania, names Saccone as well as the House clerk and the House parliamentarian as defendants.
The foundation is asking a federal judge to order the defendants to stop publishing and distributing the resolution and to rule that state government is not Judeo-Christian.