Activist Group Sues House Chaplain, Speaker for Rejecting Atheist Invocation in U.S. Congress

Congress Prayer
A painting of the first prayer in Congress in September 1774. Artist: T.H. Matteson, 1848.

MADISON, Wisc. — A professing atheist group that seeks to separate God from government has filed a lawsuit against the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the speaker of the House, after the co-president of the Godless group was prevented from delivering an atheist invocation before Congress.

Dan Barker, the co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), filed the suit on Thursday—the National Day of Prayer. It names Patrick Conroy, Speaker Paul Ryan and members of Conroy’s staff as defendants.

According to FFRF, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, had sponsored Barker to deliver the invocation as a Congressional guest in February 2015. Conroy’s office notified Barker that all guest chaplains must be “ordained by a recognized body in the faith in which he/she practices” and must present a copy of their ordination certificate as proof. He also advised that the invocation must address a “higher power.”

“This is a substantive requirement—not a mechanical or check-the-box requirement,” Conroy advised. “For example, I do not invite member-recommended individuals who have obtained an Internet-generated ordination to serve as guest chaplains, even if they hold deep and long-standing religious beliefs.”

Barker had formerly served as a minister in California, being ordained in 1975, but proclaimed his atheism in 1984 and no longer is affiliated with any Christian denomination. He still uses his ordination, however, as a means to officiate weddings.

Believing that this was sufficient, Barker consequently submitted his ordination certificate to Conroy’s office. In regard to addressing a “higher power,” he provided Conroy with the text of his planned invocation, stating that he believes there is no higher power than “we, the people of these United States.”

But Conroy was not convinced that Barker qualified under the rules about guest chaplains, and the matter remained outstanding for nearly a year when Conroy advised Barker in January 2016 that he was denying his appearance because he has “announced his atheism publicly” and is not a true “minister of the gospel.”

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“Daniel Barker was ordained in a denomination in which he no longer practices,” an email from Conroy’s office outlined.

Barker now alleges that Conroy has violated his rights by prohibiting him from delivering an invocation. He specifically contends that the rejection is a violation of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which states that the government must not “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless there is a “compelling government interest” in doing so.

The FFRF co-president also says that the Congressional policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by preferring religion over non-religion, as well as Article VI, Section III of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office.” He takes issue with the fact that the vast majority of the prayers delivered before Congress are Christian.

“We take some satisfaction in filing this lawsuit on the National Day of Prayer, an unconstitutional law enacted at the behest of Billy Graham in 1952 requiring the president to issue an annual proclamation exhorting citizens ‘to turn to God in prayer, at churches,'” Barker said in a statement.

His wife, co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor, acknowledged to reporters, “This is a hard case to take and win. We know that.”


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  • Reason2012

    So they’re admitting atheism is a belief system?
    Or instead is this a case of “you have no church, there’s no god you’re claiming to worship, hence you’re not a religion, hence you get no such rights, and we perform the invocation that matches the religion of the people in the area, not a couple who have no religion but are from an anti-Christian hate group instead”.

    • gogo0

      atheism is a lack of belief system, and wanting to keep everyone’s government secular does not make them a hate group against christians any more than christians wanting a theocracy favoring only them makes christianity a hate group against americans.

      • Reason2012

        No, atheism is not like believing in one god and not believing in another. Atheism claims there is NO god of any kind – huge difference.

        Yet that’s a belief system as well that they can only believe in, believing that “nothing did it”.

        And trying to promote “there is no God” in the government is also them trying to force their belief system on the government, trying to make it illegal for anyone in the government to dare express any other belief, which is a violation of the establishment clause.

        • gogo0

          do you believe in the flying spaghetti monster? i’m going to assume that you dont, because there is absolutely no logical reason at all to believe there is -just like christianity, all the other religions, and the planet’s core consisting solely of billions of cats each rotating independently at the speed of light. anyway, using your rules, that belief that there is no FSM and no earth-core spin cats are now belief systems that you belong to. that is nonsense, just like calling atheism a religion.

          if you pay attention, you will understand that the goal is not to tell govt there is no god, but to keep govt out of the business of pushing any religion on it’s citizens. i’m sure you feel as strongly about islamic prayers being held in congress as atheists do about any of them.

          go believe in whatever fairy tale pleases you most, just do it in a way that doesnt affect people who believe in different fairy tales, or those of us who dont believe in any. that said, i understand that equality is not something religious extremists are willing to put up with.

          • Slidellman4life

            if you pay attention, you will understand that the goal is not to tell govt there is no god, but to keep govt out of the business of pushing any religion on it’s citizens.

            Absolutely false. I have had people state unequivocally their goal is to remove God from the public square, because they think a godless society is a better society.

          • Theodore Fenton

            “I have had people state unequivocally their goal is to remove God from the public square.”

            Yeah, but it’s always fundamentalist Christians who are stating their interpretation of the goals of non-believers.

          • Slidellman4life

            So…what is your point? It would not take much to provide direct evidence here if not for the fact screenshots are not allowed.

          • gogo0

            cool anecdote.
            i’ve met christians who think gays should be put into internment camps. guess that means it’s all christians’ goal!

            see how useless generalizations can be?

          • Slidellman4life

            Non-sequitur. Try again.

          • gogo0

            a stupid generalization based on an anecdote responded to with a stupid generalization based on an anecdote. if you dont understand how those could be connected, then i suppose it would appear to be a non-sequiter

          • Slidellman4life

            a stupid generalization

            You wish it was. Which is why your epic fail to brush it aside is not even relevant.

          • Cady555

            Removing religion from government action does not make our society godless. Individuals will continue to honor god as they wish in their lives and their communities.

            It is simply that no one gets to use government to give one religious view special benefits. All religious views get equal treatment from the government. That is all secular means.

          • Slidellman4life

            I did not ask you. I asked Theodore.

        • Josey

          They definitely show their irony…what a bunch of fools they are.

      • Amos Moses

        “it’s a belief system like your not believing in Zeus is. ”

        No, it is not………..

        • George T

          Amos Moses: Okay, atheism is a belief (lack of) statement. Religions are faiths. Faiths are a subset of beliefs. For legal purposes our courts compare the atheist belief to faiths even though they aren’t exactly the same. When arguing rights, the atheism belief is a stand-in for a religious faith because they are all forms of belief.

  • 201821208 :)

    The wicked, in the haughtiness of his countenance, does not seek Him. All his thoughts are, “There is no God.” Psalm 10:4

    • Orion Jones

      Is that really the best argument you can come up with?

      • gogo0

        yes, it literally is

    • George T

      201821208 :): Incorrect. My thoughts are usually along the lines of… “I’m hungry”… “she’s hot”… or… “this is annoying”. I don’t think about your god just like you don’t think about The Tooth Fairy not really existing every moment of every day.

  • ab

    I would like to know how much, in tax dollars are being wasted on this Chaplin.

    • Slidellman4life

      Charlie?

      • ab

        Thank you.

  • http://www.bing.com/ Martin Smit

    There’s no point in invoking a deity that cannot hear you. How then did atheists propose invoke “we the people” before television (or at least radio)? Does atheism only exist because of the media?

    • George T

      Martin Smit:

      There’s no point in invoking a deity that cannot hear you.

      Agreed! Why are they wasting so much money on a guy who’s job is invoking a nonexistent deity that can’t hear anything.

      How then did atheists propose invoke “we the people” before television (or at least radio)?

      Newspapers. Telegraph. Pony Express.

      Doesn’t matter. We the people exist. Makes more sense to speak of them/us than some imaginary father figure.

  • Slidellman4life

    In other words, Barker is trying to have his cake and eat it too, playing both sides, all in the name of a snarky stunt attempted by anti-Christian bigot Mark Pocan.

    Too bad I am not a Congressman. I would present a resolution that would: 1) Permanently ban Barker, his wife, and anyone representing the FFRF from the Capitol building, and 2) Censure Mark Pocan for his stupid stunt.

    • Cady555

      This is not a stunt. Non christians also have the right to be represented in Congress.

  • ab

    I would like to know how much in taxpayer dollars are being wasted on this Chaplain.

    • Cady555

      $800k per year for the chaplain and 2 or 3 staff members. His salary alone is over $300k to coordinate a few prayers a week.

      • The Skeptical Chymist

        James Madison thought it was a violation of the first amendment to have government paid chaplains for Congress, or for the military. And he was right.

  • Cady555

    This is the United States Congress. They do not get play favorites. Equal treatment under the law means just that.

    • Josey

      Booo Hooo!

      • Cady555

        We live in a nation of laws governed by a Constitution. This is something to celebrate. Mock tears not needed.

        • Josey

          Then stop your whining!

      • Theodore Fenton

        Do you disapprove of equal treatment under the law?

      • gogo0

        ah, “Booo Hooo” from Jesus’s famous “I got mine” sermon!
        so then I guess gays getting wedding cakes from christian bakers under the law is also a “Booo Hooo”, huh?

  • IslandAtheist

    How can Christians feel *special* if everyone gets treated equal?

    • 201821208 :)

      “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. Corrupt are they” Psalm 53:1

      • Cady555

        “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.”

        Even a fool can figure it out.

        • 201821208 :)

          Corrupt are they” Psalm 53:1

        • Slidellman4life

          It means those who say that are fools.

    • Slidellman4life

      This is not about equality. This is about a stunt pulled by Mark Pocan with the intent of mocking Christianity, prayer and the First Amendment because that is all Barker and the FFRF has ever done when they were unable to squelch someone else’s Constitutional rights.

      It is for that reason Barker should never be allowed inside the Capitol, let alone the House chambers.

      • IslandAtheist

        If you feel mocked by a differing opinion, then feel mocked.

        • Slidellman4life

          Evoking the “flying spaghetti monster” is not a differing opinion. You should know better than that.

          • IslandAtheist

            I don’t “know” that, it’s just your opinion.

          • Slidellman4life

            Blatant troll. Flagged.

          • IslandAtheist

            I’ll be wearing my collar at my city councils next invocation.

      • Cady555

        The invocation planned by Barker is polite and respectful. Why should he be denied this opportunity just because his beliefs are different than yours.

        • Slidellman4life

          This is not a stunt. Non christians also have the right to be represented in Congress.

          The invocation planned by Barker is polite and respectful.

          Barker is an atheist with a well-known track record of specifically targeting Christian speech. Unless you have read the “invocation” (and if you have managed to see it, provide the link so I can too) you have no idea what you are talking about.

          • james blue

            Have you read it? if not what basis do you have for rejecting it outright?

    • Peter Leh

      yep