May 21, 2018

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, joined by 12 religious and civil-rights organizations, today explained to a federal appeals court why the U.S. House of Representatives must allow nontheistic guest chaplains to offer secular invocations.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the lawsuit Barker v. Conroy, Americans United and allies detail how the House chaplain’s requirements for guest chaplains – that they be clergy ordained by a recognized religious body, that they continue to practice that body’s religion and that they will invoke a divine higher power – are unconstitutional because they exclude nonbelievers from participating, entangle government in individuals’ personal beliefs and show government favoritism for theistic religions over nontheistic ones and religion over nonreligion.

“The U.S. House of Representatives’ practice of having overwhelmingly Christian and monotheistic invocations does not reflect the religious pluralism of today’s America,” said Rachel Laser, Americans United’s president and CEO. “Members of the House relate to God in many ways, and a growing percentage of Americans do not relate to a deity at all. The chaplains offering invocations to the House should reflect this religious diversity.”

As further evidence of the changing attitudes about religion and government, Laser pointed to the recent controversy surrounding the employment and potential replacement of House Chaplain the Rev. Patrick Conroy, as well as the establishment of the Congressional Freethought Caucus. This new caucus, according to co-founder Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), is intended to “help spark an open dialogue about science and reason-based policy solutions, and the importance of defending the secular character of our government.”

“Tradition cannot justify the House’s discriminatory practice, for our constitutional tradition abhors religious discrimination.” Laser said. “It’s time for the House to embrace inclusivity by welcoming chaplains, members of Congress and citizens of all beliefs.”

Americans United and allies urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reverse a lower court’s ruling and reinstate the case, which was filed on behalf of Dan Barker, an atheist, ordained Christian minister and co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, whose request to offer a House invocation was denied.

“The Constitution prohibits the House Chaplain – just like all other governmental officials – from discriminating based on religion,” the brief explains. “It is no more constitutionally permissible to exclude the one-tenth of Americans who are nontheists from eligibility to solemnize sessions of Congress than it would be to exclude Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs from the guest chaplaincy based on disapproval of their beliefs.”

“No one should be excluded from participating in civic affairs because they do not believe in God,” said AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, one of the brief’s authors. “Singling out nonbelievers and preventing them from offering inspirational words to their representatives is religious discrimination, plain and simple.”

Joining Americans United on the brief are the American Ethical Union, Anti-Defamation League, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, Jewish Social Policy Action Network, Men of Reform Judaism, National Council of Jewish Women, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sikh Coalition, Union for Reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalist Association and Women of Reform Judaism.

In addition to Luchenitser, the brief was authored by AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Legal Fellow Claire L. Hillan.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

(Photo: U.S. House of Representatives chamber at the U.S. Capitol. Credit: Speaker of the House via Wikimedia Commons.)