The U.S. House of Representatives, like the U.S. Senate, has a taxpayer-funded chaplain, and one of his duties is to open daily sessions with an invocation.

Many times, though, the chaplain brings in a guest religious leader to handle that task. If you happen to be visiting the House side of Congress in the U.S. Capitol on one of those days, you might hear an invocation offered by another Christian pastor, or, less frequently, a rabbi, an imam or a Hindu priest.

But there’s one thing you’re guaranteed never to hear: a secular invocation offered by a non-theist. The House doesn’t allow that. But if a pending lawsuit is successful, that just might change.  

Dan Barker, an atheist, one-time Christian minister and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisc., is challenging the House’s policy in federal court. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will hear oral arguments in his case, Barker v. Conroy, today.

Barker’s lawsuit takes aim at House policies that discriminate against him and other nonbelievers. Barker would like to offer a secular invocation to the House but he has been denied.

To take part in the House’s guest chaplain program, a person must be “ordained by a recognized body” and that ordination must be “in the faith in which he/she practices.”

Right off the bat, we have some problems. The policy is limited to ordained members of the clergy, but not all faith communities are led by ordained religious leaders. Some are led by lay people. Indeed, some religions do not ordain anyone.

The use of the term “recognized” is also problematic. Recognized by whom? The government can never be in the business of dividing faith communities into “recognized” and “unrecognized” categories. Nor can this recognition be left up to the people. Some folks, if they had their way, would choose to recognize no faith but their own.

Barker, who is a prominent atheist leader, was at one time a Christian minister. He never formally gave up his ordination, but under the House’s policy, he can’t offer an invocation because he no longer practices that faith. That’s clear favoritism of Christianity over atheism.

Earlier this year, Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case outlining the many faults of the House’s policy. At that time, AU Legal Fellow Claire Hillan wrote a blog post observing, “This policy is antithetical to the First Amendment for three reasons: It involves government in value assessments of religion, causes fractures in our society and degrades the status of millions of Americans.”

Good points all. It’s important to remember that all Barker is asking for is the opportunity to occasionally give a secular invocation. The majority of House invocations would still be theistic in nature.

Many state and local governments have extended invitations to secular leaders to give non-theistic invocations with no problems. Allowing Barker to do the same before the House would send a powerful message to the growing number of Americans who identify as nonreligious, atheist, agnostic or humanist that they too are valued members of our diverse national community.

Right now, under the House’s policy, nonbelievers aren’t just excluded, they’re treated like second-class citizens. That’s a message that the government should never send.