A federal judge has reaffirmed the constitutionality of prayer in the U.S. Congress, ruling that Supreme Court precedent undergirds the long tradition of prayer opening each congressional session, along with the House rules that govern the practice.
The decision comes in response to a lawsuit filed by Daniel Barker, president of the atheist group Freedom from Religion Foundation. Barker had charged that Congress denied him the opportunity to offer an opening invocation, while extending the honor to religious chaplains.
In her October 11 decision, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer pointed out that House rules barred Barker from offering the invocation because of his lack of faith. She also noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress' two-century-long tradition of prayer does not conflict with the First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
But if Congress’ tradition of prayer does not conflict with the establishment clause, then why would prayer in the public schools be considered a violation of the establishment clause? Yet the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the latter to be a violation. How can this be? Judge Collyer did not address this question, which fell outside the scope of the case she was deciding.
In her opinion, Collyer wrote that “to decide that Mr. Barker was discriminated against and should be permitted to address the House would be to disregard the Supreme Court precedent that permits legislative prayer.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) applauded Collyer's ruling, noting: “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.”
Ryan said that since the return to Congress of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was shot and severely wounded in an attack on him and other congressmen in June, “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.”
Scalise also applauded the ruling, posting on Twitter: “Our rights come from God, so it's only fitting that the House begins each day united in prayer.”
Following the ruling Barker complained that a bias “against the nonreligious” had prevented him “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.”
By contrast, Tony Perkins of the Christian-oriented Family Research Council reflected that “for over 240 years, our elected representatives to the federal government have begun their public duties with prayer. When a session of the House of Representatives is opened, a prayer seeking God's guidance is offered. Among other things, this is a reflection of the faith of many people across America who themselves seek His guidance in their lives.”