Barker v. Conroy: Invocation repudiation

Appeals court says House can continue to bar atheists from delivering secular invocations

The U.S. House chaplain can continue barring atheists from delivering invocations, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unfortunately ruled April 19 in Barker v. Conroy.

“I am deeply dismayed that atheists and other nonbelievers are being openly treated as second-class citizens,” says Dan Barker, plaintiff and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “Our government is not a theocracy, and it needs to stop acting like one.”

Barring Barker as an atheist from delivering a secular invocation violates his individual civil liberties and sends the message to freethinkers across the country that they are political outsiders.

FFRF’s historic lawsuit began after Barker was invited by his member of Congress, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., to give an invocation in front of the House of Representatives. Typically, 40 percent of invocations are done by “guest chaplains,” most of them Christian representatives. Although adherents to minority faiths have been permitted to open the House, an atheist has never openly been invited.

After U.S. House Chaplain Patrick Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest, barred Barker due to his atheism, FFRF, on Barker’s behalf, sued Conroy and Paul Ryan, who as House speaker, oversaw the chaplain. In October 2017, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled against Barker.

FFRF appealed to the D.C. circuit court in May 2018, observing: “House Chaplain Patrick Conroy intentionally denied Daniel Barker an opportunity to present an invocation to members of the House of Representatives because Barker is an atheist.”

Unfortunately, the three-judge panel unanimously upheld that dismissal. The decision was written by Senior Circuit Judge David S. Tatel, joined by Harry T. Edwards and Douglas H. Ginsburg.

“Although we find that Barker has standing to challenge his exclusion from the program,” the decision reads, “we affirm the district court’s dismissal because he has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted,” the decision reads.

The appeals court did not directly rule that it is legal to discriminate against atheists. Rather, it wrote that Barker was not entitled to the relief he sought, because Congress gets special deference in interpreting its own rules:

“[T]he House’s requirement that prayers must be religious nonetheless precludes Barker from doing the very thing he asks us to order Conroy to allow him to do: deliver a secular prayer. In other words, even if, as Barker alleges, he was actually excluded simply for being an atheist, he is entitled to none of the relief he seeks.”

The court noted that its decision is limited, due to the unique relationship between Congress and the courts.

“The D.C. Court of Appeals has declared that within the halls of Congress, atheists are second-class citizens,” Barker says, noting this “undermines the very purpose of the House: to represent us; all of us.”

FFRF documented that Conroy imposed requirements that intentionally discriminated against him as an atheist. Barker, a former minister, had already met the chaplain’s two de facto requirements: that he be invited by his representative, and that he have an ordination. When Conroy then insisted Barker could not invoke a higher power, Barker met that hurdle by submitting a draft invocation that notes there is no higher authority than “We, the People.”

According to Pew Research Center, a quarter of the U.S. adult population is nonreligious, yet an open nonbeliever has never given the opening invocation before either the House or Senate. However, tax dollars of secular citizens help pay for the salaries of the two religious chaplains and their aides who work for Congress, totaling in excess of $800,000 every year.

By upholding the lower court’s decision and ruling against Barker, the court has sent the message to citizens across the country that if you don’t subscribe to theistic beliefs, you and your viewpoints are valued less among your elected representatives.

County doesn’t want to pay after losing

Despite court ruling, it wants to resume giving grants to churches

After being trounced in a legal battle over funding of churches by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Morris County, N.J., is behaving like a petulant child, says FFRF.

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously agreed in April 2018 that Morris County violated the New Jersey Constitution by granting millions of tax dollars to repair houses of worship. The U.S. Supreme Court in March unanimously agreed not to hear the county’s appeal of the case. The state Supreme Court agreed with FFRF that the grants violate Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, guaranteeing that no person shall be “obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship. . .”

Morris County lost soundly.

Then, on April 12, Morris County filed a frivolous lawsuit against FFRF and its plaintiff, David Steketee. In a suit filed before the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, the county is now asking to enjoin FFRF and Steketee from seeking the approximately $750,000 in legal fees that it owes them. Most outrageously, the county is requesting the court to enable a resumption of grants to active churches — the very funding program courts found to be unconstitutional in ruling on FFRF’s lawsuit.

“This legal challenge is bizarre,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “We litigated this case fairly in court — and the county lost. The lawsuit demonstrates religious privilege run amok.”

Ironically, the county is throwing away even more taxpayer money on this response. FFRF says it will certainly fight what it calls a “harebrained Hail Mary.”

“Twice the county has tried to take this issue to federal court, and twice it has been rebuffed,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, referring to the county’s early attempt to remove the case to federal court and to the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case.

FFRF will be pursuing its options to ensure that the attorneys who so wantonly waste a federal court’s time on this meritless and poorly conceived “prayer” of a case are taken to task.

Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Steve Benson to draw for FFRF

FFRF is proud and excited to announce that it has reached an agreement with Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson to provide custom-drawn cartoons for FFRF.

FFRF will use the cartoons for a variety of purposes, including to run with press releases and action alerts, on social media posts and, of course, in Freethought Today. (For more Benson cartoons, turn to page 23.)

Benson, the oldest grandson of the late head of the Mormon Church, Ezra Taft Benson, had been an editorial cartoonist with the Arizona Republic for 38 years, until he was let go earlier this year due to budget cuts.

He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and the Golden Spike Award in 1997 for the “best cartoon an editor killed.” He was a Pulitzer finalist in 1984, 1989, 1992 and 1994. In Arizona, he was the proud recipient of the “Parched Cow Skull Award,” for the “least positive contribution to Arizona tourism” for his cartoon takes on the state’s snowbird industry.

Benson has been president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists and has also been an amusement park caricaturist at Six Flags over Texas and former reserve police officer.

He was an Eagle Scout and graduated cum laude in 1979

Steve Benson
In Reason We Trust (By Steve Benson)

from Brigham Young University.

“I was on track to eternal Mormon stardom, reserved especially for faithful men in a church run by men,” he has written.

However, he and his then-wife, Mary Ann, left the Mormon Church in a highly publicized break in 1993.

“The last letter I got from my grandfather urged me to go easy on the Mormon Church in my cartoons,” Benson said. “I decided not to follow that advice, given that it had persistent historical problems with equal rights for women, racial equality, intellectual honesty, academic freedom, gay rights and individual freedom of speech. Plus, I didn’t like wearing its funny secret Masonic underwear, defending Mormon polygamy or believing that the Book of Mormon was an account of where Native Americans actually came from or that a white Mormon Jesus visited America after he was crucified.”

His cartoons are nationally syndicated, and at one time appeared in more than 120 newspapers.

Following a cartoon barb at then-Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson, the city leader wrote to Benson: “Your editorial cartoon was rude, crude, outrageous, inaccurate and poorly drawn. Could I have it for my office?”

Benson has also talked political cartooning and portrait-painting with former President George W. Bush.

“I like the cartooning, W. likes the portraits,” Benson said. “We both agreed that the key to doing each is capturing the eyes. Other than that, we pretty much disagreed on everything else.”

Benson, who says his motto is “I don’t aim to please, I just aim,” has appeared at several of FFRF’s annual conventions, where he received a “Freethought in the Media: Tell It Like It Is Award” (1999), an Emperor Has No Clothes Award (2002) and the Friend of Freedom Award (2003).

Beginning in 2001, he also teamed up with Dan Barker, now FFRF co-president, for the inimitable “Tunes ’N ’Toons” production, a look at freethought and religion in the news, combining cartoons, music and satire. Some of their jointly-written parodies, “Godless America” among them, are recorded on FFRF’s “Beware of Dogma” CD.

Meet a Member: John Pidgeon

Name:  John Pidgeon.

Born and raised: Green Bay, Wis., though some there would deny it.

Family: My wife Marianne, five kids, two grandkids.

Education: Master of arts from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Also, my private library, which is among the largest north of Chicago. It has 30,000 volumes on history, science, philosophy, great literatures of the world, and other subjects falling under the umbrella of the liberal arts and humanities.

Occupation: Retired social worker; freelance writer/editor appearing in Poetry, Poetry Daily, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Rosebud, The Wisconsin Academy Review, and other literary/scholarly venues no one’s ever heard of.

How I got where I am today: Inquiry, plain and simple.

Where I’m headed: Hell, if others have their way.

Person in history I admire: A set of quintuplet kindred spirits: Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll and H.L. Mencken.

These are a few of my favorite things: The score to “The Sound of Music,” the stories of the Edwardian satirist Saki, the novels of Cormac McCarthy, secular existentialism, toddlers, and the Oxford comma.

These are not: Religious bigots; small-mindedness of any nationality, color or creed.

My doubts about religion started: When, as a boy, I received a Rand-McNally globe for Christmas (the irony) and suddenly realized that 70 percent of the planet was covered with saltwater, not to mention that the continents all appeared to have been slowly torn apart from one another at the seams/coasts, and thus, obviously, did not come into existence as they appear now.

Before I die: What? Who said anything about dying?!

Ways I promote freethought: Read, write, repeat.

Why I promote freethought: Because any other kind of thought would be less than free.

Necessary Fictions

By John Pidgeon

Where Freud might view a father figure, and Marx a common fix, or Nietzsche see a dream deferred, a minor mental trick:

the bearded one, the baritone,

the listener after wishes,

grand old manufactured one,

crown of human hitches.

Whatever be our justifications,

whatever be our cross,

how telling we tell little ones

there is no Santa Claus.


How odd that God, deciding to turn author,

learned Greek, and that he did not learn it better.

— Nietzsche

They hadn’t even thought to write it down,

Not one word of what they’d heard or seen,

The first generation who had known him,

So convinced were they that he would come

For them while yet they breathed, believed, begot,

Till not one was left alive who could forget,

Thus leaving their children’s children to write,

Disagree, augment, diminish, rewrite,

Distill a mixture of contradictions,

Of special pleadings and repetitions,

For some three hundred fifty years before

Constantine ordered closed the canon door,

One line belying all that came to be:

‘My father, why have you forsaken me?’

John Pidgeon

Atheist conference in Poland celebrates martyr

Attending the annual “Days of Atheism” conference in Warsaw, Poland, FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker were quite surprised when they learned FFRF had earned the “Atheist Organization of the Year” honor given by the Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation.

The conference, which ran from March 29-31, commemorated Lyszczynski, who was accused, tried and executed for atheism in 1689. At the conference, which began with a feminist opening celebrating Poland’s 100th anniversary of women’s vote, were participants from 14 countries in Europe, two from Africa, one from Asia, two from North America and two from South America.

Barker performed a ringing freethought concert on the concert grand Steinway piano in the gorgeous Mirrors Hall at Staszic Palace, following an exquisite Chopin concert by Jarred Dunn, an FFRF member who studied piano in Poland and is living in Paris.

Gaylor gave a talk about women and religion, invoking the amazing contributions of Polish Ernestine L. Rose, who became the first canvasser for women’s rights in the United States and was a heralded suffragist and 19th century atheist.

But a mile-long march leading up to a reenactment of the execution of Lyszczynski was the centerpiece of the conference.

The execution of Lyszczynski was re-enacted on the same spot on the Warsaw Market Square where it occurred. The executioner first pulled out his “blasphemous tongue,” using a burning iron, cut off the hands that wrote “unholy” words (after slowly burning them) and finally cut off his head, “where the monstrous idea of the non-existence of God was born.” Lyszczynski’s treatise, “De non-existentia Dei,” which proclaimed, “The Man is a creator of God, and God is a concept and creation of a Man,” was thrown into flames along with his mutilated body.

Unpopular among the Catholic clergy, he was excommunicated on Aug. 30, 1668. After his unpublished treatise was denounced by a neighbor who owed him a substantial amount of money, he was arrested by the bishop of Vilnius.  As a nobleman, he underwent both a parliamentary commission, and a church trial. Although the Inquisition had been abolished in Poland, inquisitors nominated by the Vatican played key roles in his prosecution. Today, not even a road is named for him in Poland.

Overheard (May 2019)

State lawmakers need to start adequately funding [public school] needs and bring per-pupil public school funding and teacher salaries up to respectable levels, rather than creating new ways to divert taxpayer money to private and religious schools.

Newspaper editorial, “Don’t divert state money to private schools.”

Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, 4-9-19

I come here for a public meeting. I don’t come here for prayer. I go to church for prayer.

Mary FitzGerald Ozog, member of the DuPage County (Ill.) Board, after it voted 11-6 to continue to include invocations prior to the start of meetings.

Daily Herald, 3-26-19

There was no major social upheaval or loss of divine guidance reported in Dorval and Pierrefonds when they were forced by the Supreme Court ruling to stop reciting a prayer before holding their public council meetings.

Albert Kramberger, in his op-ed, “Removal of a crucifix isn’t the same as erasing heritage.”

Montreal Gazette, 3-28-19

A morally perfect being would never get enjoyment from causing pain to others. Therefore, God doesn’t know what it is like to be human. In that case, he doesn’t know what we know. But if God doesn’t know what we know, God is not all knowing, and the concept of God is contradictory. God cannot be both omniscient and morally perfect. Hence, God could not exist.

Philosophy professor Peter Atterton, in his op-ed, “A God problem.”

The New York Times, 3-25-19

Discrimination in the provision of foster care case management and adoption services is illegal, no matter the rationale. Limiting the opportunity for a child to be adopted or fostered by a loving home not only goes against the state’s goal of finding a home for every child, it is a direct violation of the contract every child-placing agency enters into with the state.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, on how Michigan will no longer allow state-funded faith-based adoption service providers to discriminate against LGBTQ couples or individuals.

Religion News Service, 3-22-19

Our public health and children’s lives are at risk because so many parents, community leaders and policymakers lack the science literacy and critical-thinking skills to decipher fact from fiction . . . From vaccine skepticism to climate-change denial, ignoring proven science could have life-threatening or even catastrophic results.

Maya Ajmera, president  of the Society for Science & the Public and the publisher of Science News, in a letter to the editor.

The New York Times, 4-16-19

We are throwing in the towel because we feel surrounded by a climate of mistrust and progressive delegitimization.

Lucetta Scaraffia, founder of the Vatican monthly publication “Women Church World,” in a letter to the pope describing why she and most of the all-female staff are stepping down.

Washington Post, 3-26-19

This morning, on a very important day, on a day where we’re swearing in a new member, the first woman Muslim serving in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in history, there was a prayer that was not meant to inspire us. There was a prayer that was not meant to bring us together.

House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, responding to Rep. Stephanie Borowicz’s Christian prayer — which included, “Jesus, you are our only hope.” — that she gave to open the session., 3-25-19

There seems to be some serious constitutional issues involved here. . . . You’re not supposed to change the content of what public school teaching is in order to conform with a particular religious denomination’s beliefs. Any student at one of those schools or the parents of any of the students at any one of those schools would have standing to challenge it under the First Amendment.

Steve Mulroy, a University of Memphis constitutional law professor, on Compass Community Schools in Memphis, which is leasing six campuses from the Catholic Diocese of Memphis. The leases contain a “morality clause” that says the schools cannot “directly advocate, promote, teach or support a position considered gravely immoral by the Roman Catholic Church at the premises as determined by the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.”

WMC5 News, 3-30-19

Trump’s perception of religious liberty as freedom only for the faiths he prefers is a potential threat to every religious group. . . . Religious freedom is either rigorously equal, or it becomes an instrument of those in power to favor or disfavor religions of their choice. And those believers who are currently in favor may someday discover what disfavor is like.

Columnist Michael Gerson in the article, “The real threat to religious freedom is Trump.”

Washington Post, 4-15-19

Freethought Today caption contest winner

Congratulations to Catherine MacLeod of New Jersey for winning FFRF’s caption contest from the April issue. For her winning entry, she receives an FFRF T-shirt!

The winning caption was: Foreclosure sale due to lack of prophets.

Top runners-up include: Empty pews included. — Marcia Yeager of Maryland.

You’re not buying it, either? — Jay Ballinger of West Virginia.

Going out of business! — Don Smith of Ohio and (separately) John Halas of Ohio.

Jesus is alive, but has missed too many mortgage payments. — Douglas Marshall of Michigan.

Thanks to all who participated. If you have any photos that you think would be good for a caption contest, please email them to

FFRF Board Chair Stephen Hirtle sent us this photo for the caption contest.

Heads Up poetry column: Jesus

By Philip Appleman


We’re cast in the image of God,

they say, but

up here the image blurs—

that Pharisee at the edge of the crowd,

the one with a burro’s belly

and a toad’s complexion

is he the real thing, God

in the flesh?

Or maybe that saintly starveling, all

bones in her pinched piety—does God

have a profile like hers?

Just days ago, these very faces,

rainbowed with joy, saw palm trees

ripped and strewn for the son of man. Now

my palms are red,

and it’s all changed—bloodlust

smudges the thousand grins

of God. Here

in this Friday frenzy, just

look at them, the veins

in that legionnaire’s legs, the brutal

mouth, the pocked face, and . . .

And of course the handsome boy out there

eyeing the splendid line

of that girl’s arm—them, too.

It all counts,

doesn’t it?

I suppose they aren’t even wondering,

this godly rabble out for fun,

expecting something big today, something

spectacular. So I should be telling them,

now, before I’m dust forever—

you don’t pay off an ugly squint

with a nice ankle; a luscious

lower lip doesn’t make up

for a running sore; and above all, nobody

ever promised you justice.

All you have to know is

that a beautiful shoulder is God, but

a twisted leg is God, too,

and crooked noses and bad teeth. This

is the real revelation—that God

is only a trick with mirrors, our

dark reflection in the glass.

So up here, getting this panoramic view,

I hear the voices of God on every side,

all mocking me, “Hold on,

it’s your big scene!” And I cry out

to every smooth and sacred cheek,

to every holy wart and pustule—the spikes

tearing at my hands—I call to every

body on this hill of skulls,


Why have you

forsaken me?

From Perfidious Proverbs and Other Poems: A Satirical Look At The Bible

FFRF welcomes 22 new Lifers

FFRF welcomes and thanks our 22 new Lifetime Members, our two new After-Life Members and seven new Immortals.

Our two new $5,000 After-Life Members are Jeff Green and John Smail.

The new $1,000 Lifetime Members are Darrin Alber, Mark Asplund, James R. Baxter, Daniel Carr, Deb Crowell, Ellen Dudley, Terry D. Echols, Aaron Ferguson, Jonathan Flom, Sheila Green, Joseph R. Gruendler, Mihir Kotwal, Loren Kropat, Marc Latou, Vicki Marshall, Virginia Massa (gift from Kenneth Fahrenholtz), Gerlinde Nattier, Julie Olsen, Frank J. Peter, Dominic Stiller, Don Terry and Timothy Ross Thomas.

States represented are: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Our seven Immortals are Bryan and Dianne Benjamin, Jeff and Jill Dean, James Haught, David Salyer and Barry Solof. The Immortals category is a donation designation for those members who have contacted FFRF to report they have made provisions for FFRF in their estate planning.

Dispelling the myth of U.S. as Christian nation

Too often it is said that “America was founded as a Christian nation,” usually by someone pushing for more religion in the public sphere.

But constitutional attorney Andrew L. Seidel takes that and turns it on its head in his first book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American.

Seidel, FFRF’s director of strategic response, has spent years compiling evidence that “powerfully shows that Christian nationalists are arguing for a vision that is at odds with the essential nature of the Constitution and American government,” renowned constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky said about the book.

“The author recounts the legal issues in a lively, lucid fashion accessible to readers unfamiliar with the fine points of either the bible or the Constitution,” writes freethinking author Susan Jacoby in the book’s foreword. “Above all, he makes the vital point that when faith is politically weaponized, religion itself ‘is weakened and tainted.’”

Seidel writes, in the Introduction:

There are two major lies on which Christian nationalism relies. Most books focus on the first myth, that America is a Christian nation. . . . The second myth is the focus of my book because it pervades all other Christian nationalist arguments. If America is not founded on Judeo-Christian principles, it is not a Christian nation. If America is not founded on Judeo-Christian principles, Christian nationalists are wrong. And while other authors have refuted the first fiction, the second remains untouched. This book seeks to change that by comparing the principles of Judeo-Christianity and the principles that founded the United States of America. . . . The two systems differ and conflict to such a degree that, to put it bluntly, Christianity is un-American.”

“The book concludes with a look at some unavoidable American verbiage: ‘In God we trust,’ ‘One nation under God,’ and ‘God bless America.’ These are not founding principles, but simply relics of Christian nationalists’ using government offices to promote their religion during times of fear, strife and diminished civil rights.”

Others who have read the book give Seidel high marks.

Geoffrey Stone, First Amendment scholar, law professor and author: “At a time when too many religious and political figures trumpet the notion that the precepts of traditional Christianity were built into our national values, Seidel persuasively demonstrates that such an assertion is simply unfounded. This is an important insight that Americans of every political and religious stripe should understand and embrace.”

Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist: “The founders of our country weren’t believing Christians, deliberately kept God out of the Constitution, and enacted laws that explicitly defy the ‘morality’ of the bible.”


Founding Myth book tour

May 16  Madison, Wis.

May 19 Knoxville, Tenn.

May 20 Raleigh, N.C.

May 21 Charleston, S.C.

May 22 Greenville, S.C.

May 23 Atlanta

May 26 Seattle

June 11   Chicago

June 30   Orlando, Fla.

July 1       Boca Raton, Fla.

Check details at

Photo by Chris Line
Andrew L. Seidel holds up copies of his new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American. You can buy the book at