Prayer Prevails in U.S. House

April 24, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. –  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled on Good Friday to uphold the House of Representatives’ practice that it start each session with a prayer by clergy, a regular feature of the proceedings since 1789.

The federal appeals court sided with Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, in his official capacity as the House chaplain, and the chamber itself, in a lawsuit brought by Daniel Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). Barker, an atheist, attempted to become a guest “chaplain” to present a secular (most likely insulting message) for an opening session of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Barker, who is a militant and angry atheist, applied to the House of Representatives to deliver a secular message in lieu of a prayer. Rev. Conroy rejected Barker’s application in 2015 because he was “ordained in a denomination in which he no longer practices.” But over the course of litigation challenging that denial, Conroy said Barker could not serve as a guest chaplain because he wanted to deliver a “secular prayer.” The House rules require a religious invocation to be delivered.

Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, invited Barker to serve as guest “chaplain” back in 2015. The chaplain’s office denied Barker’s request in December 2015.  Barker filed suit in 2016.

In a unanimous ruling released Friday, a three-judge panel affirmed a lower court’s decision to dismiss Barker’s claim that his rights were violated under the Establishment Clause.

Writing for the court, Judge David Tatel explained that the legal question was not whether Barker was blocked from offering a prayer because he was an atheist, but rather about the content of that prayer. Tatel wrote, “To resolve this case, however, we 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.”

Liberty Counsel’s Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “It is fitting that on Good Friday the court upheld the tradition of seeking God’s guidance at the opening of each session of the House of Representatives. I have personally debated Dan Barker. He is the most militant and angry atheist I have ever met. His opening remarks in the debate cannot be printed. He had no intention of being respectful, but rather wanted to use the opportunity to rant against Christians and Jesus Christ. Our nation’s legislature has opened with religious prayer by clergy since 1789 as a reflection of the faith of our founders. This great tradition was initiated by Benjamin Franklin,” said Staver.

SOURCE: Liberty Counsel