Atheist Loses Legal Bid to Deliver Congressional Invocation

Rev. Patrick Conroy, chaplain of the House, attends the 2013 National Days of Remembrance ceremony in the Capitol rotunda to honor the victims of the Holocaust. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON — The Freedom from Religion Foundation lost a legal effort to compel the House of Representatives chaplain to allow an atheist to deliver a secular invocation at the beginning of lawmakers’ daily session.

Daniel Barker, co-president of FFRF, filed suit against House Chaplain Father Pat Conroy, who was unanimously sworn in back in May 2011, after the Jesuit priest explained that Barker was rejected because of his lack of religion. Barker cited Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, which held that prayer before legislative meetings does not violate the Constitution, in arguing why he should be included as a guest chaplain.

The list of guest chaplains sponsored by members of Congress and approved by Conroy includes reverends, rabbis and imams, with Christians accounting for the vast majority. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) recommended Barker, a former minister turned nonbeliever, to deliver the invocation.

Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that Barker had a “flawed” interpretation of the 2014 Galloway Supreme Court case. “The legislative prayer practice of the House of Representatives is consistent with the decisions of the Supreme Court and this Circuit, as well as the Rules of the House,” Collyer wrote. “Mr. Barker has failed to state a claim on which he is entitled to relief.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, praised the ruling, noting that “since the first session of the Continental Congress, our nation’s legislature has opened with a prayer to God.”

“Today, that tradition was upheld and the freedom to exercise religion was vindicated. The court rightfully dismissed the claims of an atheist that he had the right to deliver a secular invocation in place of the opening prayer,” Ryan said in a statement. “Recently, especially following the return of Majority Whip Steve Scalise, this institution has been reminded about the power of prayer. I commend the District Court for its decision, and I am grateful that the people’s House can continue to begin its work each day as we have for centuries: taking a moment to pray to God.”

The Freedom from Religion Foundation argued that they represent too large a segment of the U.S. population — including 38 percent of millennials identifying as not religious — to be excluded.

“We’re deeply dismayed that atheists and other nonbelievers are being openly treated as second-class citizens,” says FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Our government is not a theocracy, and it needs to stop acting like one.”

Barker said that Father Conroy’s “personal biases against the nonreligious have prevented me from participating in my government.”

“The judge’s acquiescence in this inequity sends a crystal clear message that our government, founded upon our entirely secular Constitution, may discriminate with impunity against atheists and freethinkers,” he said.