The Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently and unanimously passed HR 535 (193-0), which asserts 2012 is officially the Year of the Bible. Sponsored by Republican Rep. Rick Saccone of the 39th District and passed by the House as a nonbinding resolution, “[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.”
Saccone’s website states, “As not only Pennsylvania, but the United States, continues to face great tests and challenges, House Resolution 535 serves as a reminder that we must look to our faith in God and the Holy Scripture to provide us with the strength, wisdom and courage to conquer these great trials.”
Yes, Section 3 in the declaration of rights within the Pennsylvania Constitution does state that “no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.”
However, HR 535 does not have the authority to interfere with, prefer or establish any religion.
HR 535 is harmless and has no impact on the citizenry. Nonbinding resolutions are simple parliamentary motions and cannot be signed by governors. They cannot become law or even be considered as having a law-like effect on the public.
However, nonbinding resolutions are designed to have an overt political effect and, because of this, are generally reported by media outlets given that journalists closely follow decisions and actions taken in the Statehouse. In addition, nonbinding resolutions are commonly used by state legislators as signals designed to appease certain interest groups. In this case, HR 535 likely was used to placate religious organizations and conservative groups. It’s an easy way to satisfy potential campaign donors.
We can debate the merits and technical procedures of whether HR 535 is unconstitutional, but I think such debates miss the broader point.
HR 535 represents a problem in how a legislature perceives issues on its agenda. Legislators spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with frivolous and innocuous legislation that wastes resources and has absolutely no public effect.
Meaningless legislation passed in unanimous fashion, like HR 535, is quite common in any state legislature. However, given the current and looming challenges faced by Pennsylvania, the public is likely to feel its legislature is incapable of dealing with important and substantive issues like energy, education, taxation and health care.
Is HR 535 a waste of time or does it represent a real and compelling constitutional challenge?
Chris Dolan is an assistant professor of political science at Lebanon Valley College and the author of “Striking First,” “In War We Trust” and “The Presidency and Economic Policy.”