House Chaplain Must Not Be Permitted to Discriminate Against Atheist Speakers


For Immediate Release: May 22, 2018
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director
press@centerforinquiry.org - (207) 358-9785

By refusing to allow an atheist minister to deliver an invocation to the House of Representatives, the House Chaplain is imposing a religious test for a government position and discriminating based on religion, which the Center for Inquiry (CFI) argues in an amicus brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals is a violation of the Constitution. CFI, which seeks to foster a secular society based on reason and science, is joined in the amicus by American Atheists.

The case of Dan Barker v. Patrick Conroy, being heard at the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, challenges the refusal by Conroy, the Chaplain of the House of Representatives, to permit Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and an ordained minister, to give the invocation to the House at the start of the day’s session. The brief can be read here.

Under House rules, the day’s business begins with a prayer delivered either by the Chaplain or by a guest that he appoints. As required by Conroy’s own rules, Barker was recommended for the role by a sitting Member of the House, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI). The plaintiff contends that Conroy refused to consider the recommendation based on Barker’s public position as an atheist.

“It’s bad enough that the House has a Chaplain at all, and that the legislative day begins with religious prayers,” said Nick Little, co-author of the brief and CFI’s Vice-President and General Counsel. “But if the role is open to guest speakers, it must be done in a constitutional fashion. Outright exclusion of atheists from that role clearly violates the Constitution.”

CFI and American Atheists argue that the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the government may not preference religion in general over non-religion. The Court has also long held that atheists cannot be excluded from government appointed positions because of their lack of religious belief. And most recently, the Court has found that while religious prayers before legislative meetings do not themselves violate the Constitution, the selection of guests to give such addresses cannot be discriminatory.

“Father Conroy’s discriminatory actions exacerbate the marginalization of atheists, implying that atheists aren’t full citizens of the United States, worthy of the same respect and rights as their religious compatriots,” added Little. “Certainly, Father Conroy is aware that Catholics like himself once faced this kind of discrimination. We trust that the courts will agree that he must not be allowed to use his position to perpetrate such discrimination himself.”

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at centerforinquiry.org.