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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