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Atheists Lose First Amendment Legal Challenge to State's 'Year of the Bible' Declaration


"Praise the Lord."

A woman holds a bible as she prays on the front steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. The Supreme Court is embarking on a new term that could be as consequential as the last one with the prospect for major rulings about affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights.Credit: AP

Atheists technically lost their legal battle, challenging Pennsylvania's "year of the Bible" declaration. That said, there's a light at the end of the non-theistic tunnel, as the judge, despite ruling against secularists, also chastised state politicians for pandering to the electorate.

In February, the foundation for the Freedom From Religion Foundation's (FFRF) legal battle was set after the Pennsylvania House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution (H.R. 535) declaring 2012 the “Year of the Bible.” Naturally, this riled non-believers, causing them to publicly protest what they saw as a discriminatory breach of the separation of church and state.

"This nation faces great challenges that will test it as it has never been tested before … and renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through Holy Scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people," a portion of the declaration read.

After months of jockeying back and forth between the two sides, U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner dismissed the case, siding with House Republicans who had motioned for the court to do so (the judge said he was bound by legislative immunity -- a protection of lawmakers for actions they take within their respective duties).

While Conner dismissed the FFRF challenge, he also chastised the lawmakers, calling the resolution a "waste of legislative resources" and dismissing it as "exclusionary," reports.

"At worst, it is premeditated pandering designed to provide a reelection sound bite for use by members of the General Assembly," the judge wrote. "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."

In the end, though, in a rare show for a court battle of this magnitude, both sides expressed delight with Conner's decision.

"Praise the Lord. What we did was not novel or controversial," explained Rep. Rick Saccone (R. Allegheny), one of the individuals named in the lawsuit. "It recognized the role of the Bible in history."

Dan Barker, co-president of the FFRF, ironically echoed this sentiment (of, at the least, the overall agreement that the outcome was favorable).

"We like the decision even though we technically lost; we think it's a good decision," he said. "We feel Rep. Saccone and others were abusing authority to promote their religion and using it to pander to the religious right."

The judge's decision comes after debate surrounding the proclamation intensified earlier this year. Atheists quickly responded to the proclamation with an anti-Bible ad invoking the theme of slavery, calling the Bible "barbaric."

It appears the holy scandal has come to a close in Pennsylvania -- at least for the time being.




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