Written by Don Byrd

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of Patrick Conroy, the chaplain of the U.S. House, and dismissed a challenge to Conroy’s refusal to allow “former Christian minister turned atheist” Daniel Barker to deliver an invocation at the legislature. Barker was nominated by a House member, per House policy, to deliver an opening prayer as guest chaplain, but Conroy denied his request on the grounds that House rules do not allow a nonreligious invocation.

The court analyzed this dispute through the lens of the two U.S. Supreme Court cases dealing with legislative prayer: Marsh and Town of Greece. Both together, the court explained, stand for the proposition that prayer practices are constitutional as long as they are consistent with the “tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures.” And the history of legislative prayer, the court’s reasoning continues, is one that “took as a given the religious nature of legislative prayer.”

From the opinion:

Marsh and Town of Greece leave no doubt that the Supreme Court understands our nation’s longstanding legislative-prayer tradition as one that, because of its “unique history,” can be both religious and consistent with the Establishment Clause. And although the Court has warned against discriminating among religions or tolerating a pattern of prayers that proselytize or disparage certain faiths or beliefs, it has never suggested that legislatures must allow secular as well as religious prayer. In the sui generis context of legislative prayer, then, the House does not violate the Establishment Clause by limiting its opening prayer to religious prayer.

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.

In August of last year, a federal court in Pennsylvania ruled unconstitutional a policy excluding nontheists from delivering an invocation in the State House. That case has been appealed to the 3rd Circuit.

For more on this topic, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s resource page on Town of Greece v. Galloway, the most recent Supreme Court case on the issue of legislative prayer.