Earlier this week, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 535, a nonbinding resolution designating 2012 the “Year of the Bible.” Introduced by Rep. Rick Saccone (R–Elizabeth Township) and 36 other legislators, the measure insists that “biblical teachings inspired concepts of civil government that are contained in our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.”
This resolution sends a clear message to residents that the state favors Christianity and it thus violates the spirit of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It also runs afoul of Section 3 of the Pennsylvania State Constitution, which states, “no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.” Section 3 makes it crystal clear that Pennsylvania’s early representatives recognized the importance of keeping church and state separated and intended government to remain neutral with respect to religion.
This resolution is also alienating and will have the effect of informing non-Christians they are little more than second-class citizens. According to data from 2000, the Penn State University’s Association of Religion Data Archives shows that Pennsylvania’s population was 12,281,054. Of these, 8,448,193 were estimated to belong to “some sort of organized religion” with about 422,000 being non-Christian. This leaves around 4 million residents whose religious affiliations are unknown. A 2011 Gallup Poll found that 7% of Americans claim to be atheist which is similar to other studies. Using 7% as a very conservative approximation means that of the 4 million whose religious affiliations are unknown about 280,000 can be considered atheist.
These data suggest there are over 700,000 non-Christian and atheist Pennsylvania residents who probably do not agree with H.R. 535. Added to this number would be all the Christians who also do not believe that a majority religion should be forced upon non-Christians. Many Christians solemnly believe that religion is a personal endeavor and religious edicts should not be heralded from our state houses.
If church-state separation means anything at all, it ought to stand for the proposition that government stays out of religion. Many Americans believe in the Bible, but many don’t. It’s not the business of the Pennsylvania House to make overt religious proclamations. It’s a shame that the House has turned its back on our admirable tradition of government neutrality with respect to religion and sent a message of intolerance to those who do not share the majority faith.