HARRISBURG - A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit by an atheist group that challenged the legislature's resolution declaring 2012 the "Year of the Bible," but he also chastised the lawmakers for "pandering."
In his ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner granted the House Republicans' motion to dismiss the lawsuit by Freedom From Religion Foundation, saying he was bound by legislative immunity.
However, he issued a strong rebuke of the legislature's action, which he said pushed "the Establishment Clause envelope behind the safety glass of legislative immunity" and called the resolution "exclusionary" and a "waste of legislative resources."
"At worst," Conner wrote, "it is premeditated pandering designed to provide a reelection sound bite for use by members of the General Assembly. At a time when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania faces massive public policy challenges, these resources would be far better utilized in meaningful legislative efforts for the benefit all of the citizens of the Commonwealth, regardless of their religious beliefs."
Both the resolution's sponsor and the plaintiff said they were pleased with the decision.
"Praise the Lord," Rep. Rick Saccone (R., Allegheny), the sponsor who was named in the suit, said with a laugh. "What we did was not novel or controversial. It recognized the role of the Bible in history."
Dan Barker, copresident of Freedom from Religion Foundation, a group that represents atheists and agnostics, had argued that it created a "hostile environment" emphasizing Christian belief over other religions or non-religions.
He said he was pleased that the judge acknowledged that nonbelievers suffered injury in the issuance of the proclamation.
"We like the decision even though we technically lost; we think it's a good decision," said Barker, whose Madison, Wis.-based group filed suit on behalf of 80 Pennsylvania residents.
"We feel Rep. Saccone and others were abusing authority to promote their religion and using it to pander to the religious right."
The one-page resolution, which passed unanimously (193-0) on Jan. 24, recognizes the Bible's "formative influence" on the founding of the nation and the commonwealth.
It suggests that as the nation "faces great challenges," there should be a recognition of a "national need to study and apply" scripture.
The measure was voted quickly as a "non-controversial" resolution. But later, after questions were raised by civil liberties groups, several lawmakers said they regretted their votes.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), said, "We're pleased the court upheld the constitutionality of legislative process, even if the opinion went out of its way to state its concerns with the process.
"Sometimes we're confounded by the actions of the judicial branch and sometimes they don't understand the process of the General Assembly," said Miskin. "This appears to be one of those times."