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Congress Sued After Atheist Denied Chance to Give Invocation

Atheists file lawsuit against Congress for rejecting their invocation for the National Day of Prayer.

The United States observed the National Day of Prayer last Thursday, May 5. The day saw millions of Americans turning to God in prayer and meditation. The day also saw Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) filing a lawsuit against Patrick Conroy, the United States House Chaplain, because he prohibited Dan Barker, Co-President of FFRF, from delivering a secular guest invocation to the House.

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FFRF is an American non-profit organization based in Madison, Wisconsin. It has members from all 50 states. An avid promoter of the separation of the church and the state, FFRF is the largest national organization for atheists. The organization educates the public on matters relating to non-theism, agnosticism, and atheism.

The U.S. House and Senate begins their sessions with an opening invocation. It is usually delivered by the House Chaplain or a guest invited by a Congress member. There is no set rule as to who can or cannot lead the invocation. So far, priests, reverends, rabbis, imams, and other religious people have been invited to lead the invocation.

Dan Barker, who was a Christian minister for 19 years, who still has a valid ordination, was nominated by the U.S. representative Mark Pocan, to deliver a guest invocation, last year. Barker provided all the required documentation to the Chaplain's office. The Chaplain's office, after reviewing all the documents, told Barker that he must also address a “higher power.” Barker submitted a draft in which he stated that there is no higher power than the people of the United States. Chaplain Patrick Conroy officially rejected the nomination of Mark Pocan in January 2016, stating that Barker, who is not a true minister of the gospel because he announced atheism publicly, is not eligible to lead the invocation. He said Barker does not deserve the honor of appearing in front of Congress.

The suit filed by FFRF states that around 97% of the House invocations has been led by Christians in the past 15 years, 2.7% by Jews, and less than a half percent by the Hindus or the Muslims. A quarter of the U.S. population consists of non-religious people, yet, the House never even once invited a non-believer to lead the invocation. Tax dollars of the secular citizens help to pay the salaries of Congress aides and religious priests. The House Chaplain is getting $345,198 and the Senate Chaplain's office is getting $436,886, each year. The suit states that the Chaplain has violated the rights of Barker under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and Article VI, Section III of the U.S. Constitution.

This legal suit marks the latest in the contentious fight over the role of religion in government.


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