U.S. House Can Legally Reject Secular Invocations


Photo Credits: Secular Coalition for Arizona

In 2015, Daniel Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a former Christian minister who is now an atheist, wanted to deliver a secular invocation at the beginning of The U.S. House of Representatives session. Rev. Patrick Conroy, the House chaplain, rejected Barker’s request because he was “ordained in a denomination in which he no longer practices” and because he wanted to deliver a secular invocation. The House also specified that its rules require a religious invocation to be delivered.

Those who want to deliver an invocation have to be sponsored by a member of Congress, ordained, and address a “higher power" rather than House members. Barker was sponsored by Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin. Because he is a former Christian minister, Barker submitted his ordination paperwork together with a draft of his speech. Finally, when he was told that he must address a "higher power", he stated that there is no power higher than the People of United States. But all of this was not enough and his request was dismissed.

Barker argued that the First Amendment was violated by that move. His discrimination complaint was dismissed by the lower court and The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this ruling. “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,” the court said, as The Washington Examiner reports. “In other words, even if, as Barker alleges, he was actually excluded simply for being an atheist, he is entitled to none of the relief he seeks. We could not order Conroy to allow Barker to deliver a secular invocation because the House permissibly limits the opening prayer to religious prayer.”

Even though Barker met all the requirements to deliver his invocation the Court decided that an invocation has to be religious. Unlike the Supreme Court's 2014 decision in Greece v. Galloway, in which the court said that invocations must be open to people of all religious background, including people without religion, the D.C Circuit Court's decision is discriminating against non-religious people. As Patheos reports, Nick Little, The Center For Inquiry's Vice President and General Counsel stated that “Even when invited by a sitting member of the House, the nonreligious are excluded from providing an invocation.

Imagine the uproar if such practices were used against Jewish people or Muslims. Congress and its Chaplain are not permitted to categorically exclude our community; that is discrimination.”

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