Federal judge dismisses lawsuit against US House chaplain who refused to allow atheist to give invocation

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit that was filed against a U.S. House Chaplain who refused to allow an atheist to perform an invocation in Congress.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled on Wednesday in favor of House Chaplain Father Patrick Conroy who was sued by an atheist over his refusal to invite him to deliver a nonreligious invocation in Congress.

“This court concludes that the refusal of the House chaplain to invite an avowed atheist to deliver the morning ‘prayer,’ in the guise of a non-religious public exhortation as a ‘guest chaplain,’ did not violate the Establishment Clause,” Collyer stated in her ruling, as reported by Christian News Network.

Dan Barker, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), sued Conroy and House Speaker Paul Ryan in May 2016 after he was prevented from delivering an invocation before Congress.

He was invited to deliver the invocation by Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, in February 2015, but Conroy’s office informed him that all guest chaplains must be “ordained by a recognized body in the faith in which he/she practices” and must present a copy of their ordination certificate as proof. Additionally, Barker was also told that a “higher power” must be addressed in the invocation.

Barker was ordained as a minister in 1975 before he became an atheist 10 years later. He submitted his certificate of ordination, which he had retained as a means to officiate at weddings, and said that in regard to addressing a higher power, he believes there is no higher power than “we, the people of these United States.”

In January 2016, Conroy denied Barker’s request to give the invocation because he had publicly announced his atheism.

In his lawsuit, Barker alleged that Conroy violated his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the government from interfering with a person’s exercise of religion unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

Collyer, however, concluded that Barker has not been discriminated against, despite his claims.

“Taking as true Mr. Barker’s allegations that atheism is his religion and assuming, but not finding, that RFRA applies to the House, the court finds Mr. Barker has failed adequately to allege a claim under RFRA because he fails to allege a substantial burden,” the judge wrote, according to Courthouse News.

She then argued that a substantial burden exists when a government action “puts a ‘substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.'”

Collyer also rejected Barker’s argument that his lawsuit was supported by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway case, in which the court ruled that the township could permit volunteer chaplains to open each legislative session with a prayer.

The judge argued that the ruling does not apply to Barker’s case because the justices make no mention of atheists in their decision.

The FFRF denounced Collyer’s ruling, saying the court has legitimized the exclusion of nonbelievers from the nation’s legislative chambers.

“We’re deeply dismayed that atheists and other nonbelievers are being openly treated as second-class citizens. Our government is not a theocracy, and it needs to stop acting like one,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor on Facebook.