Humanists Challenge Congressional Prayer Caucus

Anti-secular congressional group has gone unchallenged

Posted Dec 06, 2012

In an interview on Fox News on Tuesday, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) called the American Humanist Association (AHA) “extremist” because the group launched a campaign to inform newly elected members of Congress about the anti-secular agenda of the Congressional Prayer Caucus (CPC).  The AHA sent a letter to incoming lawmakers last month in an effort to dissuade them from joining the caucus, which has long avoided public scrutiny. (Full disclosure: I am currently the AHA’s president.)

Over a hundred members of Congress – nearly one in four – belong to the CPC, which was formed by Forbes in 2005, and for many the decision to join must have been a no-brainer. If your district has a noteworthy base of politically engaged, conservative Christian voters, associating with the CPC would be a way of appeasing them with no apparent downside.

The Washington-based AHA is seeking to change that. Using the CPC’s own stated agenda as evidence, the AHA is arguing that membership in the CPC is an expression of hostility to secular constituents. Given that seculars are a growing and increasingly visible demographic, legislators should think twice before joining a caucus that is committed to marginalizing these constituents.

The CPC is vocal on a wide range of issues, most of which could be described as “culture war” battles. One CPC-supported proposal, for example, seeks the erection of “In God We Trust” signs on all public buildings. Not only would the significant cost of such a measure seem wasteful in the midst of lean economic times, but the proposal is also an overt attack on America's secular demographic. Little consideration is given to the taxpaying atheist family that would be sending its children to school each day to be faced with highly visible signage – paid for with their tax dollars – advocating for god-belief, implicitly suggesting that nonbelievers are less patriotic.

The supremacy of theistic religion – and implicit condemnation of secularity – is the consistent drumbeat of the caucus. Whereas most legislative caucuses focus on niche interests (such as the Congressional Bike Caucus or the Congressional Diabetes Caucus) or minority interests (such as the Congressional Black Caucus or the Congressional Hispanic Caucus), the CPC is unique in that it focuses on majoritarian dominance. As such, it’s about as necessary as a Congressional White Caucus.

The CPC web site insists, in a statement demonstrating that it is oblivious to secular citizens, that it seeks to help Americans recognize the “vital role” that prayer plays “in uniting us as a people.” Through the legislative process, the site says, the CPC seeks “to assist the nation and its people in continuing to draw upon the benefit from this essential source of our strength and well-being.” Thus, in its own words the CPC is determined to promote religion and marginalize secular Americans.

And the CPC is willing to pursue radical means to achieve its ends. One proposal, deceptively described as a proposal “to protect the right of elected officials to express their religious beliefs,” would have removed all Establishment Clause cases involving prayer by public officials from the jurisdiction of federal courts. The caucus also devotes resources to such matters as “recognizing the significant impact of the Ten Commandments on America’s development,” fighting to keep “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and advocating for a National Year of the Bible.

Though it is a product of federal legislators, the CPC doesn’t even limit itself to federal issues. When a Colorado state court decided that a state law declaring a Colorado Day of Prayer (as opposed to the federal government’s National Day of Prayer) violated the state’s constitution, the CPC vocally objected, even though surely its members have little knowledge or expertise on Colorado state law.

Such trivial details, however, are unimportant to the CPC, which sees any effort to enforce church-state separation as hostility. Hence, the CPC objected to a Fourth Circuit decision that said prayers at legislative sessions cannot be overly sectarian. In the case in question, Joyner v. Forsyth County, a North Carolina county panel was opening its meeting with prayers that referenced Jesus and Christianity, sectarian favoritism that clearly runs afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The CPC, joining in an amicus brief filed by fundamentalist Christian groups, unsuccessfully argued that the decision should be reversed.

Predictably, in light of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the CPC expresses grave concern for the “religious freedom” of service members whose religious beliefs “conflicted with homosexual behavior.” (The CPC doesn’t explain, of course, how one service member’s sexual orientation could infringe on the religious freedom of another.) And completely ignoring a high-profile scandal that engulfed the Air Force in recent years involving fundamentalist Christians who were brashly proselytizing at the Air Force Academy, the CPC refers to efforts to reign in the aggressive fundamentalism and religious favoritism as “hostility to faith in the Air Force.”

The religious advocacy exhibited by the CPC is obvious, but rarely are the legislators who take part in this advocacy called out for this blatantly discriminatory agenda. The AHA points out that any systematic effort to promote religion necessarily discriminates against millions of taxpaying secular citizens. This, to Forbes, is extremism.

David Niose's new book is Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans.