June 2019 Church & State Magazine - June 2019

U.S. House Can Limit Invocations To Religious Prayer, Appeals Court Says

  Rob Boston

The U.S. House of Representatives does not have to allow an atheist to deliver a secular invocation, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit April 19 upheld rules promulgated by the House that effectively bar Dan Barker, a former Christian minister turned atheist, from delivering an invocation.

Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wanted to give a secular invocation before the House. Although the House has a chaplain paid by taxpayer funds, it often allows guest religious leaders (usually Christians, although non-Christians are invited on occasion) to deliver opening prayers.

Barker argued that House members could benefit from hearing a secular invocation as well, and was invited to deliver one by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.).

But the House chaplain, the Rev. Pat­rick J. Conroy, was determined to stop Barker. Conroy made a number of arguments for why Barker should be excluded, at first asserting that Bar­ker is not a properly ordained religious figure. Conroy’s legal counsel later argued that the House’s rules require that guest chaplains deliver “a religious invocation,” and since Bar­ker was not willing to do that, he could be denied.

Barker sued seeking equal treatment. A lower court dismissed the case, and the appeals court ruling did the same.

“The House’s requirement that prayers must be religious nonetheless precludes Barker from doing the very thing he asks us to order Conroy to allow him to do: deliver a secular prayer,” asserted the court.

The court’s reasoning in the Bar­ker v. Conroy case appears to be heav­ily influenced by separation-of-powers concerns and other legal principles that are applicable solely to Congress.

AU criticized the ruling.

“Allowing the House to prohibit secular invocations excludes millions of Americans who identify as non-theist, agnostic, spiritual but not religious or ‘nones,’ relegating them to the status of second-class citizenship,” wrote Church & State Editor Rob Boston on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog. “Ironically, this is the segment of the population that is growing most rapidly.”

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