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Atheist who wanted to 'pray' in U.S. House refused

(Image courtesy Pixabay)

A federal appeals court has rejected an atheist’s demand that the U.S. House of Representatives allow him to open a session with a secular “prayer,” ruling that under the Constitution’s separation of powers, Congress can establish its own rules.

Dan Barker, the founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a former ordained Christian minister, had been invited by Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., to offer a “secular prayer.”

Barker explained he would appeal to a “higher power” of “human wisdom.”

His plan, however, was rejected by the office of the House chaplain, who initially thought it was a joke. The chaplain argued Barker was ordained by a religious organization he no longer supported.

Barker sued the chaplain, Patrick Conroy, and others, and appealed to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia when his complaint was rejected by the Washington District Court.

The appeals court explained that the House has begun each legislative day with a prayer since 1789 and the Supreme Court found the practice compatible with the Establishment Clause.

“Although a House-appointed chaplain has traditionally delivered the opening prayer, at some time in the past the House began allowing members to nominate other individuals to give a prayer as a ‘guest chaplain.'”

The opinion said Conroy denied Barker’s request and the district court dismissed the claim “for lack of Article III standing and for failure to state a claim.”

The appeals court said the dismissal of the case was affirmed “because [Barker] has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

“To resolve the case … 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,” the opinion said.

“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.”

The court continued: “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 cited the Rulemaking Clause of Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution, which “clearly reserves to each House of the Congress the authority to make its own rules.”

Interpreting a congressional rule “differently than would the Congress itself” is tantamount to “making the rules – a power that the Rulemaking Clause reserves to each House alone.”

The court said, “Accordingly, we accept the House’s interpretation if its own rules as requiring a religious prayer, thus eliminating any risk of running afoul of either the Rulemaking Clause, or separation-of-powers principles.”