Appeals Court Rules U.S. House Chaplain Can Refuse to Allow Atheist Prayers

In this 2016, file photo Rev. Patrick Conroy, chaplain of the House of Representatives, delivers an interfaith message on the steps of the Capitol in Washington for the victims of the mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
In this 2016, file photo Rev. Patrick Conroy, chaplain of the House of Representatives, delivers an interfaith message on the steps of the Capitol in Washington for the victims of the mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)

In the federal appeals court Friday, the atheist didn’t have a prayer.

A U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with Father Patrick Conroy, the House chaplain, in ruling that he could not be ordered to allow a self-described atheist to offer a secular prayer to the House of Representatives.

The case was brought Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation and a former minister, against Conroy, in his official role as the House chaplain.

Barker alleged Conroy improperly rejected a request to have him serve as guest chaplain.

The lower court had dismissed Barker’s claim that his rights had been violated under the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the establishment of religion by Congress, but offered its own take on the issue.

In the decision released Friday, the appeals court’s three-judge panel sidestepped the legal question of whether Baker was being prevented from offering a prayer because he was an atheist, and focused instead of the content of the prayer.

Writing for the panel, Judge David S. Tatel said that the court “need not decide whether there is a constitutional difference between excluding a would-be prayer-giver from the guest chaplain program because he is an atheist and excluding him because he has expressed a desire to deliver a nonreligious prayer.”

“Even though we accept as true Barker’s allegation that Conroy rejected him ‘because he is an atheist,’ 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,” he wrote.

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SOURCE: Doug Stanglin, USA TODAY