December 2018 Church & State - December 2018

Lawsuit Challenges U.S. House’s Invocation Policy

  Rob Boston

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., heard oral arguments Oct. 18 in a lawsuit challenging the U.S. House of Representatives’ policy regarding the invocations that open its sessions.

The House and the U.S. Senate have taxpayer-funded chaplains who often open daily sessions with an invocation. Many times, though, the chaplain brings in a guest religious leader to handle the task.

While a variety of Christian ministers as well as Jewish, Muslim and Hindu leaders have offered invocations, House policy bars non-theists from offering a secular invocation – a policy that’s now being challenged in court.

The lawsuit, Barker v. Conroy, asserts that the House’s policy, which says that a person must be “ordained by a recognized body” and that ordination must be “in the faith in which he/she practices,” discriminates against non-theists.

Dan Barker, who is a co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which brought the case, is now an atheist but was at one time a Christian minister. He never formally gave up his ordination, but under the House’s policy, Barker can’t offer an invocation because he no longer practices that faith. Americans United says that’s clear favoritism of Christianity over atheism.

Earlier this year, Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case outlining the many faults of the House’s policy. In addition, 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.”

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