Heard on the Hill

House Tradition of Opening Legislative Day with Prayer Upheld

Court rules against atheist who wanted to deliver a secular invocation on the floor

Patrick Conroy, chaplain of the House of Representatives, left, leads both teams in a moment of prayer before the start of the annual Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park in June 15. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Chaplain Patrick Conroy and Paul D. Ryan got a win on Wednesday when the U.S. District Court upheld Congress’ right to open with a prayer.

In the case of Barker v. Conroy, the plaintiff, Daniel Barker, an atheist and the founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, filed a federal discrimination and free speech lawsuit against Conroy and Ryan in June 2016 after his request to offer a secular invocation on the floor was declined.

In a statement reacting to the ruling, Ryan, a devout Catholic, said, “Since the first session of the Continental Congress, our nation’s legislature has opened with a prayer to God. Today, that tradition was upheld and the freedom to exercise religion was vindicated. The court rightfully dismissed the claims of an atheist that he had the right to deliver a secular invocation in place of the opening prayer.”

“Recently, especially following the return of Majority Whip Steve Scalise, this institution has been reminded about the power of prayer. I commend the District Court for its decision, and I am grateful that the People’s House can continue to begin its work each day as we have for centuries: taking a moment to pray to God.”

[An Atheist Sues the Speaker Over Prayer in the House]

Guest chaplains can lead prayer once they are nominated by a member of the House and selected by Conroy.

Barker wanted to deliver an invocation, was recommended by Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., and submitted a draft invocation in 2014. Conroy turned down the request in Dec. 2015 on grounds the secular advocate was not “a religious clergyman,” Roll Call reported at the time

Conroy, a Jesuit priest, has been public about not invoking Jesus’ name on the House floor to be more inclusive to members of different faiths.

In May 2014, the Supreme Court endorsed prayer at the start of legislative meetings with a split 5-4 decision, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing that such prayer “has a permissible ceremonial purpose” and “is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.”

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