Court Battles

Appeals court rules House chaplain can reject secular prayers

Greg Nash

A federal appeals court handed a legal victory to House Rev. Patrick J. Conroy on Good Friday when it ruled he cannot be forced to let an atheist offer a secular prayer on the chamber floor.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit dismissed a claim brought by Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a former minister, that his rights were violated when Conroy said he could not serve as a guest chaplain.

{mosads}Judge David S. Tatel, writing on behalf of the three-judge panel, focused the court’s ruling not on Barker’s atheism but rather on the content of the prayer.

“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,” Tatel wrote. “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.

“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. Barker has therefore failed to state a claim for which relief can be granted.”

The court noted that Conroy changed his explanation as to why Barker could not serve as a guest chaplain. He initially argued that Barker is not a recognized or ordained religious figure but later said his decision was based on House regulations that require prayers to have “a religious invocation.”

The controversy began in 2015 when Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) invited Barker to serve as a guest chaplain. Barker filed the suit in 2016, when Republicans, under former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), sided with Conroy.

The Supreme Court upheld legislative prayer in 2014.

Tags Mark Pocan Paul Ryan
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