Chaplaincy Challenge: Why Don’t U.S. House Members Pay Their Own Preacher?

Cut spending, cut spending, cut spending.

That’s House Speaker John Boehner’s mantra and the reason the House Republicans claim they were put in charge.

Yet despite this, Boehner and his friends are continuing to use taxpayer dollars to pick up the tab for a House chaplain. Boehner has nominated the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, a Jesuit priest and theology teacher at a Catholic school in Portland, Ore., to fill the position.

Last month, the Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin retired after 11 years in the post, giving Boehner a chance to nominate another chaplain or, in the alternative, abolish the position completely.

Getting rid of the position would have been a good place to save some money. (The House chaplain’s office is budgeted for $179,000 in the current year.) Instead, Boehner nominated Conroy.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi apparently okayed Boehner’s selection last week, after questions about Conroy’s background were answered to her satisfaction.  (Conroy is a member of a Catholic religious order that plans to pay $166 million to hundreds of sexual abuse victims.)

The House will vote on Conroy’s nomination within the month.

Should taxpayers fund the salary and attendant expenses of a religious leader who is serving elected officials in apparent conflict with the First Amendment?

Let’s ask James Madison, the Father of the Constitution. In his “Detached Memoranda" essays, he questioned the value of a House chaplain, noting the "scanty attendance" at the daily prayers in the early 1800s. The entire process, he said, was "degenerating into...a tiresome formality."

Though Madison was a member of a House committee that helped select the first congressional chaplain, he later wrote that it was a mistake and opposed taxpayer-financed clergy.

"Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?" Madison asked. "In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative.... The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles."

Madison suggested that members of Congress set a good example of voluntary religion by paying for their own religious worship. He observed, "Let them like their Constituents do so at their own expense.”

That’s a good idea. If Boehner and the other 434 members want religious counsel, why don’t they pay for the chaplain’s salary from their own pockets instead of relying on all Americans to foot the bill?

Or better yet, they could abolish the chaplaincy post entirely. Capitol Hill has many houses of worship, and clergy there no doubt stand ready to advise any House members who need it.