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Secularists sue House chaplain on National Day of Prayer

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(RNS) A secular watchdog organization is suing a congressional chaplain for blocking one of its leaders from delivering an invocation before the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that promotes the separation of church and state, filed a lawsuit Thursday (May 5) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Rev. Patrick Conroy, a House chaplain.

It alleges that Conroy, a Jesuit priest, denied the application of FFRF co-president Dan Barker to deliver a “guest invocation” before a session of the House. The suit claims Conroy rejected Barker, an avowed atheist, because he is “not a minister of the gospel.”

The suit was filed on what is observed by many, including the Congress, as National Day of Prayer.

The suit claims Barker was rejected due to discrimination against atheists. It claims Barker fulfilled all the requirements of a guest chaplain, which include being ordained and addressing a “higher power” in the invocation.

Barker, author of “God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction” and frequent speaker at atheist and humanist gatherings, was ordained in 1975 by a Christian group in Standard, Calif., and has maintained his ordination despite announcing his atheism in 1984.

Barker planned to address his invocation to the higher power of “We, The people of these United States.”

“We take some satisfaction in filing this lawsuit on the National Day of Prayer, an unconstitutional law enacted at the behest of the Rev. Billy Graham in 1952 requiring the president to issue an annual proclamation exhorting citizens ‘to turn to God in prayer, at churches,'” Barker said in a statement.

The suit also names Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, whose office oversees the Office of the Chaplain in the U.S. House.


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • I hate to admit it, but… even as an atheist, I have to admit that the idea of an ‘atheist chaplain’ sounds a bit like an oxymoron.

  • And what “higher power” other than the Christian god would be allowed as the addressee of the invocation, if the chaplain rejected Mr. Barker because he is not a “minister of the gospel”? And how is that not a violation of the prohibition against the establishment of religion?

  • Praying to the People of the United States? I’ve sometimes heard it said that boosters of Democracy have made the People into our God, but this is the first time I’ve heard anyone taking it this seriously. Only of course Barker wasn’t taking it seriously but trying to mock what he no longer believes in. The chaplain was right to reject his request.

  • Is it really important whether a person is a believer or a secularist or an atheist or a none or any other whatever? Here’s a list of parallel verses of the first words of 1Peter 2:17 —

    1. Honor and respect all men…..
    2. Respect everyone…
    3. Honor everyone…
    4. Treat everyone with high regard…
    5. Honor all people…
    6. Honour all men…
    7. Honor every person…
    8. Shew honour to all…
    9. to all give ye honour…

    Those attitudes are how we should treat everyone.

    Then there’s Romans 12:10…….. Be devoted to each other with mutual affection. Excel at showing respect for each other.

    And on and on…

    It does at first sound silly that an atheist should want to give an invocation instead of just maintaining a fight against an invocation of which tends to have a religious connotations. But after looking at it closer, there does seem to be a fit here. An invocation in a act of invoking someone or some thing for assistance, so although an invocation can often be thought of as calling upon something supernatural, since there is no good evidenced reason to believe the supernatural exist, it can be stated that even the most religious has never actually evoked god or the supernatural because they are just myths or things which do not really exist. So an invocation does not necessarily apply to the supernatural. Also, although the requirement to be ordained is surely silly in a secular government and is obviously out of place, it does signify that someone is probably aware of how to provide the gravitas associated with an occasion considered important — although someone could be ordained through the mail depending on the religion. Finally, appealing to a higher power is an easy requirement to obtain. An individual person is a lesser power than a group of people, or to the power associated with the physical universe. Therefore an individual person can easily appeal to a higher power in the form of a group of people, a group such as a government of people, by the people and for the people, so help us, us. Why not invoke the powers of government to help with the challenges found in the world. If the choice is between a non existent mythical god or a secular government that exists in reality, then surely an invocation to the government would have more potential efficacy than invoking the powers of the mythical god. Easy Peasy. As it turns out, though, this case ends up being a test which shows that there is no actual separation of State and church in this situation. The government fails again to meet its written commitments. When it fails, it is we the people [the people of FFRF in this case], that must set it right. Secular must be held up higher against sectarian so that all might have a chance at fairness under the law.

  • SuperSanic: And a chaplain earning nearly $200k of taxpayer funds for this BS is just moronic.

  • DougH: Why is a Christian chaplain given government authority to approve or reject people like Mr. Barker? Sounds like a clear 1st amendment violation to give exclusive access and power to only Christians.

  • Who said it should only be Christains? But true prayer requires faith a) in a Higher Power b) that cares enough to intervene in our affairs. I can’t think of a single atheist that will accept those beliefs, or any deists that will accept the second.

  • DougH: Who are you (or more importantly, who is the congressional chaplain) to say that Dan Barker doesn’t have faith in “we the people”, view the strength and capability of humanity as a whole as a higher power than himself, or that his higher power doesn’t care enough to intervene?

  • So you are going to claim that “the People” are the same in kind as God, possessed of supernatural power and knowledge, different from Him only in degree? Good luck selling that. In fact, good luck getting Barker (or any other atheist) to agree with that.

  • DougH: So you’re going to make hyperbolic assumptions based on my logical answers to the issues you brought up.

    When an atheist is forced to attend an AA meeting s/he must then find some way to create a higher power to focus on for the court mandated activity. In some cases they reference humanity as being stronger and more capable than an individual human. It is a valid and logical conclusion.

    You’re the one that’s setting up baseless definitions and qualifiers for the invocation task. At least the congressional chaplain is being honest by saying he doesn’t think an atheist chaplain is qualified purely as a matter of opinion.

  • Nothing hyperbolic about it. Prayer is an attempt to communicate with a Higher Power of supernatural origin. If you do not believe in such – and by definition no atheist does – then it is impossible for you to pray. There is nothing supernatural about “the People” and I highly doubt Barker believes there is.

  • DougH: He offered an invocation, not a prayer. It’s perfectly acceptable and conforms to his beliefs. Nobody said it had to reference a supernatural power. More of your qualifiers, eh?

  • By definition, an invocation is “the act of mentioning or referring to someone or something in support of your ideas : the act of invoking something” ( One type of invocation is to ask for the support of a god.

    In any event, secular invocations have been given throughout the country before legislative bodies ever since the Supreme Court decision in Greece v. Galloway. Much like the oath for public office, no god or gods are ever required.

  • You wrote, “An invocation is a prayer, in which one invokes a Higher Power of supernatural origin.” No, an invocation, by definition, is the act of asking for help or support. ONE type of invocation is to ask for help from a god. In any event, numerous secular invocations have been given throughout the country before legislative bodies ever since the Supreme Court decision in Greece v. Galloway. Much like taking an oath for public office or giving testimony in court, no god or gods are ever required.

  • FFRF filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of excluding atheists and other nonbelievers from delivering a secular invocation opening a session of Congress. The lawsuit happened to be filed on the same day as the National Day of Prayer. The intended secular invocation was NOT in celebration of the National Day of Prayer as you stated. As I pointed out earlier, an invocation, by definition, need not involve any god or gods.

  • I’ll grant that out of eight definitions of “invocation,” two do not involve supernatural powers. But since the purpose of the invocation before Congress is to call upon God to support our nation, atheists are by definition excluded — you might as well insist that blind people be granted driver’s licenses.

  • On review you’re right, I misunderstood the original article. But my point still stands — the invocation given before Congress is synonymous with prayer, intended to call upon God to forgive and support us. The American People are not God. The very fact that Barker chose the National Day of Prayer to file the lawsuit demonstrates the motivation behind it — to advance the cause of driving religion out of public life and into the closet.

  • Atheists are by no means excluded from giving invocations – they’ve done it numerous times since the Greece v. Galloway ruling. As I indicated, your definition of “invocation” is far too narrow and discriminatory.

    Greece v. Galloway suggested that legislative bodies that invite local clergy members to deliver opening invocations should strive to be inclusive of all religions and non-religion. The Supreme Court noted in the opinion at the outset:

    “The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.”

  • Sure, I agree — legislatures should be as inclusive as possible. If an atheist wants to offer a prayer to a God they don’t believe in, by all means let them — God knows they exist, even if they don’t believe the opposite. But don’t be so inclusive that it dilutes the purpose of the invocation. I would have no problem with a rejection for a request for a prayer to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for the same reason.

  • You wrote, “If an atheist wants to offer a prayer to a God they don’t believe in, by all means let them.” You are wrong to insist that an invocation can only be a prayer. The etymology of the word “invocation” is from the Latin invocare “call upon, implore,” from in- “upon” + vocare “to call,” related to noun vox (genitive vocis) “voice.” Nothing in the origin of the word says it must relate to calling upon a god or the supernatural.

    Secular invocations before legislative bodies are now quite common – the main exception being the U.S. Congress. What makes Congress so special that they can blatantly discriminate against the non-religious?

  • You’ve fallen prey to the etymological fallacy: that the present-day meaning of a word or phrase should necessarily be similar to its original meaning. You run into the same problem if you try to claim anyone not a theist is an atheist because of its original construction (which also ignores the way the word was actually used by those that coined it).

    It doesn’t matter how “invocation” may be used in other situations, when used for opening benedictions such as that opening Congress it is synonymous with “prayer.” No one unable to pray has any business asking to offer the opening prayer.

  • I did not make an etymological fallacy. An argument constitutes an etymological fallacy if it makes a claim about the present meaning of a word based EXCLUSIVELY on its etymology. I already conceded that one meaning of “invocation” is to call upon a god or the supernatural. By your restrictive definition, there can be no such thing as a secular invocation, but you are wrong because secular invocations are offered regularly before legislative bodies throughout the land.

    The only real question is, what makes Congress think it is exempt from discriminating against its non-religious, taxpaying citizens?

  • If you didn’t intend to assert that your wide-open definition is the only one by bringing up the word’s etymology, there wasn’t much point to it — especially since I’d already agreed that two out of eight given definitions don’t involve supernatural powers. So the question is which definition applies to the prayers offered when opening Congress, and the answer is obvious — those definitions covering calling on a Higher Power. If other legislative bodies choose to make their opening invocations meaningless by abandoning that, that is their choice. I see no reason why Congress should.

  • Your statement that secular invocations are “meaningless” is a mean-spirited poke in the eye to the numerous non-religious citizens who have given invocations before state and local legislative bodies throughout the country. Your definition of invocation is unnecessarily restrictive, not to mention discriminatory.

    And you are wrong about having to invoke a supernatural power because Chaplain Conroy has NO written criteria for selecting guest chaplains. He made up three criteria after-the-fact when an atheist submitted a request. He told Dan Barker that guest chaplains must:

    1) Be ordained – yet 8 imams have given invocations. Islam has no formal or ordained clergy.
    2) Invoke a supernatural power – yet not all guest chaplains have invoked a supernatural power. E.g., Rev. Wilker invoked “the spirit of life” and Rev. Walton invoked “the spirit of truth and reconciliation.”
    3) Be sponsored by a House member – and yet, unlike Dan Barker, not all guest chaplains have been sponsored by a member of the House.

    No other guest chaplain had to submit a draft of their invocation ahead of time except Dan Barker. Are you seeing a pattern here? The unwritten “requirements” have been disparately applied by Chaplain Conroy. I haven’t even touched on the constitutional issues. This is just the tip of the legal iceberg.

  • I agree – 8 imams have given invocations before Congress, and they can hardly be considered “ministers of the gospel.” Also, Islam has no formal or ordained clergy, so the 8 imams did not meet the requirement of being ordained either. And the Dali Lama invoked Buddha, not a supernatural power, so the Dali Lama didn’t meet any of the bogus requirements for being a guest chaplain.

  • If you want to argue for a need for consistency, I won’t disagree with you — whatever criteria Conroy applies DO need to be consistent. And those criteria need to reflect the purpose of the benedictions, to appeal to God for his forgiveness and blessings for our country. But I can understand the need for extra care when an atheist states he wants to give a prayer.

  • Yes, I am arguing for consistency in applying selection criteria because that is the law. Treating candidates differently is the very definition of disparate treatment discrimination.

    Also, guest chaplains are selected to give invocations. An invocation may or may not involve calling upon the supernatural. The Dali Lama gave an invocation where he invoked Buddha. Buddha is not a supernatural entity and never claimed to be one. Mr. Barker offered to give an invocation. Non-religious citizens give secular invocations before legislative bodies on a regular basis. The Supreme Court in Greece v. Galloway upheld legislative prayer invocations because the town “maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an ATHEIST, could give the invocation.”

    I don’t understand why you think an atheist offering to give an invocation requires “extra care” during the selection process. On the one hand, you agree that consistency is important in selecting guest chaplains and yet you believe some should be treated differently and given extra scrutiny. I suppose that makes you a hypocrite.

  • For the Theravada Buddhists, the Buddha isn’t a supernatural entity — or anyone else, for that matter, the only thing that really distinguishes Theravada Buddhism as a religion rather than a philosophy is its focus and goal. For Mahayana Buddhists (over half of all Buddhists) the Buddha very much is a supernatural entity along with Bodhisattvas and other entities, that they worship — the closest Western analogy is probably Catholic saints. And Tibetan Buddhism is a development of Mahayana Buddhism.

    As for why I think atheists need extra care, any time someone that doesn’t believe in the supernatural claims to want to offer a prayer suspicion is called for. And if they don’t want to offer a prayer, then one has to wonder why they are asking to.

  • Thanks for the summary of different versions of Buddhism, but I was specifically referring to the Dali Lama, who characterized Buddhism as a “godless religion” in his book, “Living in a Better Way” (2001):

    “Basically, religions may be divided into two groups. One group, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and some ancient Indian traditions, I call God religions. Their fundamental faith is in a Creator. The other group of religious tradition, including Jainism, Buddhism, I usually call godless religions. They do not believe in a Creator. But, of course, God is a sense of infinite love. The religions are not so different in this understanding. But God in the sense of Creator, something absolute – that is difficult to accept.”

    So when the Dali Lama invoked Buddha in his invocation before Congress, I doubt that he was calling upon a supernatural entity, per Chaplain Conroy’s “requirement.” I also doubt that the Dali Lama met Conroy’s requirement that the guest chaplain be “a minister of the gospel.” In any event, I already gave two examples of guest chaplains who did not invoke the supernatural in their invocations.

    You questioned Dan Barker’s motives for wanting to serve as guest chaplain. He stated several reasons in his lawsuit – the prestige, the honor, the opportunity to solemnize the work of Congress, and so on. But to me, it’s like asking Rosa Parks why she wanted to sit in the white section of the bus. No openly avowed atheist has ever been selected to be guest chaplain. Chaplain Conroy has the “inexorable zero” staring him in the face. He has set up a pretext to ban any atheist from serving as guest chaplain. I believe that is all about to change.

  • It is true that Buddhists don’t believe in God Almighty, the Creator of the Universe. But that isn’t the same as saying that most of them don’t make appeals to supranatural entities for aid — something that no true atheist would do. What else would you call a prayer to a millennia-dead man for his help, expecting to get it?

    As for Barker’s motives, it sounds like the only motive he’s lacking is the one actually needed — a desire to appeal to a Higher Power to forgive our nation its sins and intervene on its behalf.

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