By Nick Wing
Each session of the U.S. House and Senate begins with an opening invocation, delivered either by the chaplain of the chamber or a guest invited by a member of Congress. The custom has brought reverends, rabbis, priests and imams to the floor to address lawmakers. And though there are no written rules determining exactly who can and cannot lead these ceremonies, the House chaplain recently told atheists that they are not welcome.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the separation of church and state, says House Chaplain Patrick Conroy unconstitutionally discriminated against the group’s co-president when he blocked him from leading a secular invocation. On Thursday, the FFRF filed a lawsuit against Conroy, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and others, asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for relief.
The litigation is the latest development in a contentious fight over the role of religion in government. It specifically tests the question of whether nonbelievers must be allowed to participate in proceedings that have traditionally been seen as forums for religious expression.
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker began exploring the idea of delivering a secular invocation in 2014, weeks after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of religious prayer in government meetings as long as such policies are nondiscriminatory. The FFRF says the ruling means that all people — regardless of their faith, or lack thereof — must have an opportunity to participate.
The complaint claims Conroy’s process of vetting guest chaplains is discriminatory. Barker says he was told he’d be required to have a House sponsor, to present a certificate showing he was officially ordained and to address a “higher power” in his observance.
While the FFRF alleges that these rules are unfairly designed to exclude atheists, Barker was actually able to meet them. First, he found a sponsor in Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who represents the district where FFRF headquarters are located. Then, Barker provided proof of his ordination. Though he publicly announced his atheism in 1984, Barker was an active and ordained Christian minister before that, and still keeps his credentials updated so he can serve as a wedding officiant.
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