Chaplain who censored atheist Barker to step down


The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit to have nonbelievers included in our nation’s legislative chambers is not immediately affected by the announcement that the current House chaplain will retire.

“The in-house chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives is stepping down next month after seven years in the post,” Roll Call reports. “Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, 67, a Catholic priest of the Jesuit order, has served in the post since 2011.”

Conroy is the defendant in a historic lawsuit filed by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker for barring him as an atheist from delivering a guest invocation. Also named as a defendant in Barker v. Conroy is House Speaker Paul Ryan, who oversees the chaplain’s office and who is also stepping down at the end of the current congressional term. Both Conroy and Ryan are defendants in their official capacity and FFRF will be battling their replacements when the time comes.

The state/church watchdog filed an appeal last December of a district court ruling that legitimized the current congressional marginalization of nonbelievers. U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer ruled in October against opening up the hallowed sanctum of our country’s lawmaking to freethinkers.

The case began when U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who represents Barker’s district in Madison, Wis., requested that Barker give the opening invocation before the House. Usually, such sponsorship is all that is necessary to be named guest chaplain.

But Conroy purposefully stonewalled. Although the chaplain has no written requirements for guest chaplains, Conroy required proof of Barker’s ordination, which Barker, a former minister, produced. Then Conroy declared that Barker could not deliver the opening invocation because he lacks belief in “a higher power.” Barker responded by submitting a draft of his invocation, in which he noted that he could indeed invoke a “higher power”: “There is no power higher than ‘We, the People of the United States.’”

Conroy did not budge, prompting the litigation.

“All 60 House chaplains have been Christian,” Roll Call notes. And no atheist or agnostic has been allowed to officially offer the opening invocation before Congress, a state of affairs that has closed off our lawmaking body to the almost one-fourth of Americans (including 38 percent of Millennials) who are nonreligious.

“Shouldn’t the House of Representatives be representative?” asks Barker.

There’s an additional issue here. Congress spends about $800,000 a year on prayer-making, including the annual salary of $172,000 for departing House Chaplain Conroy, as well as a salary and office for the Senate chaplain. Conroy’s sole duty, Barker has pointed out, is to “offer a prayer at the commencement of each day’s sitting on the House” — roughly 135 times per year — a duty that Conroy delegates to a guest chaplain approximately 40 percent of the time. FFRF calculates that in 2011 Conroy earned $1,659 per prayer.

FFRF is calling for the chaplaincy to be steered in a radically different direction.
“Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi need to pick someone who is, at the least, much more open-minded — if they need to pick anybody at all,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wis., is the largest U.S. association of freethinkers, representing over 33,000 atheists, agnostics, and other freethinking American citizens.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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