Atheist group argues in court for prayer rights on House floor

Atheist group argues in court for prayer rights on House floor
© Greg Nash

A federal appeals court this week heard oral arguments in a case involving an advocacy group that sued the House chaplain after an atheist was not allowed to deliver a secular prayer on the House floor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin-based nontheist activist group, is fighting to allow an atheist to serve as a guest chaplain and deliver the opening invocation on the House floor. The group's co-founder, Dan Barker, was denied his request to deliver a secular invocation in 2015 after receiving an invitation to do so by Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Democratic race for Speaker turns nasty McConnell pens editorial calling for bipartisanship after Dems take House Colorado's first black congressman-elect says midterms signal positive future MORE (D-Wis.).

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Barker filed a discrimination and free speech lawsuit in 2016 against House Chaplain Patrick Conroy, his staff and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan defends Navy admiral after Trump's criticism On The Money: Senate banking panel showcases 2020 Dems | Koch groups urge Congress not to renew tax breaks | Dow down nearly 400 | Cuomo defends Amazon HQ2 deal Koch groups: Congress shouldn't renew expired tax breaks MORE (R-Wis.). That case was dismissed last year by Judge Rosemary Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia but taken up by the D.C. Court of Appeals.

"Barker wishes to invoke the same higher power that's recognized in our Constitution: we the people," Andrew Seidel, legal counsel for FFRF, told the appeals court judges on Thursday. "He wanted to invoke the spirit of some of our most influential founders: Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass.”

Barker says his invitation in 2015 was rejected by Conroy’s staff, who said he did not meet guest the chaplain requirements: to be sponsored by a member of the House, be ordained and address in the prayer a “higher power,” rather than directly addressing lawmakers.

Barker is an ordained minister despite no longer practicing his former religion, but Seidel noted that unordained Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu religious leaders have delivered prayers on the House floor. Seidel went on to say there isn’t a difference between a secular invocation and a prayer, making the case that Barker was looking to invoke the sentiment of the country’s founders.

House General Counsel Thomas Hunger argued on Thursday that House rules require an opening prayer, which he said would prohibit a guest chaplain from delivering a secular invocation in lieu of a prayer regardless of whether they are atheist. He said the plaintiff's complaint that previous guest chaplains have delivered nontheistic prayers is unfounded.

“The allegations in the complaint, the people that delivered the three prayers addressed in the complaint, are all ordained pastors and they're all prayers," Hunger said. "They're all invoking a spirit, some higher power and asking blessing and ending with amen and in the traditional idiom of prayer."

“They're not secular invocations they don't happen to name recognized deities, but there is no requirement that a prayer giver name recognizes a deity to deliver a prayer to a higher power invoking blessing and so forth in the idiom of prayer - that's that's the only requirement. And the problem is plaintiff is unwilling to do that as he made clear in the request and in his complaint.”

The court has not said when it will rule on the case.