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Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc v. Representative Rick Saccone

October 1, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


Presently before the court in the above-captioned matter is the motion to dismiss (Doc. 11) of defendants Representative Rick Saccone, Clancy Myer, and Anthony Barbush (collectively, "defendants," or "legislative defendants"). Defendants argue that plaintiff Freedom From Religion Foundation's ("FFRF" or "the Foundation") complaint (Doc. 1) should be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For the reasons set forth in detail below, defendants' motion to dismiss is granted.

I. Factual and Procedural History

In a resolution unanimously passed on January 24, 2012, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives decreed 2012 to be the "Year of the Bible" in Pennsylvania.*fn1 H.R. 535, 2011-2012 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Pa. 2012) (hereinafter "H.R. 535," or "the resolution"). H.R. 535 reads as follows:

Declaring 2012 as the "Year of the Bible" in Pennsylvania. WHEREAS, The Bible, the word of God, has made a unique contribution in shaping the United States as a distinctive and blessed nation and people; and WHEREAS, Deeply held religious convictions springing from the holy scriptures led to the early settlement of our country; and WHEREAS, Biblical teachings inspired concepts of civil government that are contained in our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States; and WHEREAS, Many of our great national leaders, among them President Washington, President Jackson,*fn2 President Lincoln, President Wilson and President Reagan, paid tribute to the influence of the Bible in our country's development, as exemplified by the words of President Jackson that the Bible is "the rock on which our Republic rests"; and WHEREAS, The history of our country clearly illustrates the value of voluntarily applying the teachings of the scriptures in the lives of individuals, families and societies; and WHEREAS, This nation now faces great challenges that will test it as it has never been tested before; and WHEREAS, Renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people; therefore be it RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives declare 2012 as the "Year of the Bible" in Pennsylvania 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.

In a November 1, 2011 memorandum to the House, Representative Rick Saccone ("Saccone") explained that the purpose behind declaring 2012 to be the "Year of the Bible" would be to recognize that, "as not only Pennsylvania, but the United States, continues to face great tests and challenges, we must look to our faith in God and the Holy Scripture to provide us with the strength and courage to face these great trials." (Complaint, Doc. 1, ¶ 13). Saccone proffered the resolution as "non-controversial," meaning that it could be added to a bundle of other resolutions and voted on without debate. As a "simple resolution," H.R. 535 was not required to pass through both houses of the General Assembly. FFRF further alleges that some representatives, having unknowingly voted for the resolution amidst a larger bundle, later expressed their belief that it was, in fact, a controversial measure.

FFRF filed this lawsuit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983, naming as defendants Rep. Saccone, Clancy Myer, Parliamentarian of the House of Representatives, and Anthony Frank Barbush, Chief Clerk of the House. FFRF seeks a declaratory judgment, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201, that H.R. 535 violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment*fn3 and Article I, section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution,*fn4 and an injunction enjoining the defendants from further enactment and publication of resolutions "establishing and endorsing a state-sanctioned religion." (Complaint, Doc. 1, ¶ 2). FFRF further asks this court to order the defendants to take corrective action to publicly report the unconstitutionality of H.R. 535, to declare that Pennsylvania is subject to the restraints of the Establishment Clause, to declare that the "theocratic principles of the Bible" do not constitute the established religion of Pennsylvania, to declare that the government of Pennsylvania is not Judeo-Christian, and to award FFRF attorney's fees and costs.

FFRF is a non-profit organization composed of "non-theists" that advocates for the separation of church and state. FFRF claims more than 17,500 members, including at least 599 members in Pennsylvania. The Foundation filed this suit on behalf of its Pennsylvania members, each of whom opposes governmental speech that endorses religion because "they are made to feel as if they are political outsiders." (Id. at ¶ 8). FFRF alleges that their members have been injured by past and prospective exposure to the resolution, which they argue impermissibly advances, endorses, and promotes a state religion and is an illegitimate exercise of state power.

The matter has been fully briefed, and is ripe for disposition.

II. Discussion

Defendants raise two independent grounds for dismissing the complaint: first, that the Foundation lacks standing to bring this action under Article III of the Constitution, and second, that even if the Foundation has standing, defendants are nonetheless shielded from suit by the doctrine of legislative immunity. The court will address each of these arguments in turn.

A. Standing

Proper subject-matter jurisdiction is an inescapable predicate to a discussion of a case's merits. The judicial power of the United States is limited to "Cases" and "Controversies," and "'Article III standing . . . enforces the Constitution's case-or-controversy requirement.'" Hein v. Freedom From Religion Found., Inc., 551 U.S. 587, 597-98 (2007) (quoting DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332, 342 (2006)). "In essence the question of standing is whether the litigant is entitled to have the court decide the merits of the dispute or of particular issues." Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498 (1975); see also American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey v. Township of Wall, 246 F.3d 258, 261 (3d Cir. 2001) ("ACLU-NJ") (standing "'is not merely a troublesome hurdle to be overcome if possible so as to reach the 'merits' of a lawsuit,' but an integral part of the governmental charter established by the Constitution.") (quoting Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 476 (1982)).

The requirements of Article III standing are "familiar." Elk Grove Unified School Dist. v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1, 11-12 (2004). The plaintiff must show that he or she suffered an "injury in fact," that the complained-of conduct is the cause of the plaintiff's injury, and that a favorable judgment from the court will redress that injury. Id.; see also Hein, 551 U.S. at 598 ("A plaintiff must allege personal injury fairly traceable to the defendant's allegedly unlawful conduct and likely to be redressed by the requested relief.") (internal quotation and citation omitted). More precisely, the "irreducible constitutional minimum of standing" consists first of an invasion of a legally protected interest that is (a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual and imminent, rather than conjectural or hypothetical. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-562 (1992) (citing Warth, 422 U.S. at 508; Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 740-41 (1972); and Whitmore v. Arkansas, 495 U.S. 149, 155 (1990)). Second, the "causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of" must be "fairly . . . trace[able] to the challenged action of the defendant, and not . . . th[e] result [of] the independent action of some third party not before the court." Id. at 560 (alterations in original) (internal quotations omitted). Third, it must be "likely" that the injury will be "redressed by a favorable decision." Id. at 560-61. "At ...

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