HARRISBURG—The unanimous passage of a contentious religious resolution in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is the latest example of the Pennsylvania legislature’s lack of respect for the diversity of its taxpaying citizens---as well as continued evidence of its failure to enact important reforms demanded following the infamous legislative pay raise scandal of 2005, according to a good-government group, Concerned Atheist Tax Payers Organization of Pennsylvania (CATPO).
House Resolution 535 (HR 535), proclaiming 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 193-0 on January 24th, after being introduced one day earlier. It avoided any committee scrutiny by being deemed “noncontroversial” by House Speaker Sam Smith and Minority Leader Frank Dermody.
After public outrage from across the religious, secular, and anti-religious spectra, at least two House members—who voted for the resolution-- are now advocating its repeal. “They claim they were ‘distracted’ by their re-election efforts, and that the resolution was ‘buried’ with many less consequential resolutions,” said Carl Silverman of Camp Hill, organizer of CATPO. “But what they aren’t likely to tell you, is that they were sent a memo on November 1st by resolution sponsor Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Jefferson Hills), describing the nature of the resolution and seeking cosponsors. That was almost three months prior to the resolution’s introduction. And that should have raised a big red flag, especially among the more progressive members of the House. So they deserve little sympathy. They are hired by the taxpayers to pay attention, not to run for re-election.”
“The motion to repeal this resolution is too little, too late. The damage has been done. Perhaps a greater issue is why the legislature wastes its precious time on ‘noncontroversial resolutions’ to begin with. They need to start fixing Pennsylvania’s dangerous bridges, rather than passing resolutions naming those bridges,” Silverman said.
“Members of the legislature continue to vote on items that they haven’t even read carefully,” Silverman said. “And they continue to prohibit cameras in the visitors galleries, so that the public would be able to witness the inattention of the members during their sessions—often they are chatting, texting, reading magazines, playing solitaire, just about anything but paying attention to what’s going on.”
“And their TV cameras, which provide a feed to their websites and to the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN) are fixed, so to prevent taxpayers from seeing how many members are present and what they are doing during the session.”
“Their videos are not archived on the internet, and, last I checked, PCN can not release copies without the permission of the legislature. And the minutes of their meetings, known as ‘Legislative Journals’ are usually not posted on the internet until many weeks or months later,” Silverman said. “These issues were brought to public attention during the pay raise scandal, but nothing has changed.”
Of particular concern to atheists and free-speech advocates is the treatment of visitors to the House visitors gallery. “The House’s armed guards continue to harass any visitor who doesn’t stand up for the opening prayer and/or the Pledge of Allegiance. They haven’t arrested or ejected anyone that we know of, but they shouldn’t even be approaching any visitor who silently remains seated—it is the visitor’s Constitutional right to do so, and they should respect that right without any interrogation or intimidation.”
“As for the prayers themselves,” Silverman continued, “non-sectarian prayers are, regrettably, Constitutionally permissible, but often the prayers delivered by “guest chaplains” in both the Senate and House are unabashedly Christian—and that’s a problem that church/state activist groups have their eye on for possible legal action.”
“Atheist/humanist leaders have not been invited to deliver opening prayers or invocations, and the Senate explictly rejected such a proposal from two Senators in the past. This needs to change, if they are going to continue to allow ‘guest chaplains’ to deliver sectarian prayers.”
“In some respects, we appreciate the passing of HR 535, because it gives us an opportunity to bring the arrogant culture of the Pennsylvania legislature into the public spotlight once again. The idea of a ‘Year of the Bible’ will backfire on the House, as atheist groups throughout Pennsylvania intend to exploit that theme throughout 2012, highlighting the aspects of the Bible that should be embarrassing to any sane, law-abiding citizen in the 21st Century,” Silverman said.
CATPO is a grassroots group of atheist taxpayers, based in central Pennsylvania. In 2009, CATPO was one of several good-government organizations that protested the distribution of tax-funded holy books for “swearing-in” ceremonies of state legislators, sponsoring a “Bible Give-Back Day” at the Capitol. The House has since reportedly turned over such holy book distribution to a private fundraising group.
Silverman, a long-time church/state activist, was a founding director of PACleanSweep, Inc., a political group formed in response to the 2005 legislative pay raise, and a co-plaintiff in Common Cause’s federal lawsuit against the pay raise. In addition to CATPO, he currently serves on two other regional atheist organizations.