Ruling on Secular Prayer in Congress is Discriminatory and Exclusionary

For Immediate Release: April 19, 2019
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director - (207) 358-9785

“It’s obvious now that our federal courts view atheists as second-class citizens.”

An appellate court ruling allowing Congress to exclude secular invocations from its traditional prayers is a blatantly discriminatory act of exclusion against nonreligious Americans, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) declared today.

In Barker v. Conroy, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found no problem with the Chaplain of the House of Representatives refusing to allow an atheist to give a secular invocation, despite being invited to do so by a sitting member.

“It’s obvious now that our federal courts view atheists as second-class citizens who can be excluded from full participation in society because of their lack of belief in a god,” said Nick Little, CFI’s Vice President and General Counsel. “They aren’t even trying to hide it any more, or dress it up in obfuscating language.”

Dan Barker, an ordained Christian minister who lost his faith and became an atheist, is now co-President of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. He was sponsored by his Representative, Mark Pocan, to deliver a secular invocation to the House of Representatives in place of the typical daily prayer. As Barker explained, he would be appealing to the “’higher power’ of human wisdom” as opposed to any god or religious entity. The Chaplain of the House, Patrick Conroy, rejected this application on the grounds Barker no longer practiced the faith in which he was ordained.

“If Dan Barker were still Christian, he’d be giving the invocation to the House,” continued Little. “He is being denied that opportunity because he’s an atheist. This decision takes the constitutionally guaranteed notion of equal treatment between the religious and the non-religious and rips it to shreds. It’s a disgraceful decision.”

The court makes this decision just as recent surveys confirm the long trend upwards in the number of nonreligious Americans. For the first time, there are more Americans of no religious affiliation than any individual religious group, including Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.

“Even when invited by a sitting member of the House, the nonreligious are excluded from providing an invocation,” added Little. “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.”

CFI, along with allied group American Atheists, submitted an amicus brief to the court in this case. That brief can be read here.

Across the country, atheists and nonbelievers are more frequently giving invocations at government functions and meetings on equal terms as religious prayer-givers. These moments of secular solemnity often reflect on the power of human reason and compassion, and the wonders that can be accomplished through goodwill and cooperation. They stand in stark contrast with divisive, exclusionary, or alienating religious prayers, such as that delivered by Pennsylvania’s State Sen. Stephanie Borowicz, whose recent opening prayer was nearly universally condemned for its hostility toward Muslims and overt Christian proselytization.

“The nation is rapidly changing, with more and more Americans sloughing off religious faith,” said Robyn Blumner, CFI’s President and CEO. “If anything, that should make it easier for courts to recognize that everyone, including atheists, has the right to participate in all government ceremonies and functions. But rather than move in this inclusive direction, the court embraced pretzel-logic contortions to exclude the nonreligious, and reserve to believers alone the honor of opening the congressional day. It’s a sad day for nonbelievers, certainly, but it also a sad day for the foundational idea that we are all equal under the law.”

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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