By Tom Strode, Baptist Press
WASHINGTON (BP) — The constitutionality of legislative prayer gained reaffirmation Oct. 11 when a federal court dismissed an atheist’s challenge of the U.S. House of Representatives’ right to bar him from delivering an invocation.
Federal Judge Rosemary Collyer of the District of Columbia said U.S. Supreme Court precedent undergirds the long tradition of prayer to open congressional sessions and the House’s rules in carrying out the practice. Collyer’s support for legislative prayer in Congress came three months after a federal appeals court invalidated the practice in a North Carolina county.
U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Benton) was among those applauding the decision.
“As an attorney who defended legislative prayer for many years prior to being elected to Congress, I am thankful for the court’s decision invalidating this latest atheist challenge to our cherished tradition,” said Johnson, a member of First Baptist Church in Bossier City. “As the Supreme Court has acknowledged many times, ‘we are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’ I look forward to continuing to start our work in Congress each day as our founders did, with a prayer to God.”
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — as well as a Southern Baptist/evangelical prayer leader — expressed gratitude for the decision.
Ryan said he is grateful the House “can continue to begin its work each day as we have for centuries: taking a moment to pray to God.”
“Recently, especially following the return of Majority Whip Steve Scalise who was critically injured by a gunman in June, this institution has been reminded about the power of prayer,” Ryan said in a written statement.
Ronnie Floyd — president of the National Day of Prayer and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention — told Baptist Press he is thankful the judge upheld the prayer tradition in Congress.
“The freedom of religion should exist in every corner of American life, including when Congress meets in session,” Floyd said.
Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, has opened both the House and Senate in prayer. Most recently, he prayed in the House two days after he was elected SBC president at the June 2014 meeting in Baltimore.
“We are a nation built upon the strong commitment, ‘In God We Trust,'” Floyd said in explaining the value of prayer in Congress. “There is no greater need in this nation than for all of us to pray. I am convinced we must do all we can to mobilize unified public prayer for America.
“The members of Congress need prayer, and they need to be led in prayer as they begin each session,” Floyd told BP in an email interview. “Just this week, I was in Washington meeting with some members of Congress. I was in a gathering with several of these leaders who pray with each other weekly, earnestly and passionately.”
Collyer’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), against House Chaplain Patrick Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest, as well as Ryan, the House and other employees of the chaplain’s office. Barker contended the refusal to allow him to deliver a secular invocation instead of a prayer to open the House’s day violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion as well as other clauses in the Constitution and federal law.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., sponsored his constituent in a request to the House chaplain, but Conroy declined Barker’s request in December 2015 because he is “ordained in a denomination in which he no longer practices” and “is not a religious clergyman [because he had] parted with his religious beliefs,” according to Collyer’s decision.
In her opinion, Collyer said, “The legislative prayer practice of the House of Representatives is consistent with the decisions of the Supreme Court and this Circuit, as well as” the House’s rules.
While she found Barker lacked the legal right — known as “standing” — to bring the suit against Conroy, Collyer also cited the high court’s previous rulings in support of legislative prayer:
— Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 Supreme Court ruling, “did not violate the Establishment Clause even though a single clergyman had offered the prayers in the Nebraska legislature for many years and they were all in the Judeo-Christian tradition,” Collyer wrote.
— Town of Greece v. Galloway, a 2014 case regarding prayer at New York town council meetings, “supported the conclusion that legislative invocations are compatible with the Establishment Clause,” she said. “Town of Greece did not alter the permissibility of legislative prayers or hold that Congress must permit nonsectarian or nontheist statements by chaplains.”
The Continental Congress initiated the tradition of federal legislative prayer in 1774, Collyer wrote. House rules require a prayer, which is consistent with the Establishment Clause, she said. Either the House chaplain or a guest chaplain opens the chamber’s session each day in prayer.
In a written statement, Barker charged Conroy’s “personal biases against the nonreligious have prevented me from participating in my government. The judge’s acquiescence in this inequity sends a crystal clear message that our government, founded upon our entirely secular Constitution, may discriminate with impunity against atheists and freethinkers.”
In a 10-5 decision in July, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., struck down the practice of the Rowan County (N.C.) Board of Commissioners in opening their meetings in prayer. Board members would offer the prayers and invite audience members to stand and participate, according to Reuters News Service.
Rowan County petitioned the Supreme Court Oct. 12, asking it to review the Fourth Circuit’s opinion and uphold its commissioners’ prayer policy.
In his role as president of the National Day of Prayer, Floyd supervises the national effort to mobilize individuals, churches and religious organizations to pray publicly for America throughout the year and culminates in the national observance on the first Thursday of May each year.