On April 16, Paul Ryan announced that the House of Representatives’ chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, would be stepping down in May. This week, it was revealed that Ryan, after being pressured by some Republicans, forced Conroy out of his post. The ouster has prompted outrage among members of the House.

That there is controversy surrounding the House Chaplain should surprise no one. The House chaplaincy is the quintessential mixing of religion and state that our founders warned us about.

There is a lot of speculation about why Ryan and other Republicans called for his firing. In fact, U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and three other members are circulating a bipartisan letter requesting more information from Ryan that they plan to send to the speaker today.

Many believe the firing was sparked by a Conroy invocation that some Republicans perceived to be critical of the Republican tax bill. The words that offended: “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”

Meanwhile, some members are questioning Ryan’s authority to fire the chaplain and are contemplating legislation to prevent similar action in the future. Others are questioning Ryan’s Catholicism, since Ryan appears to have fired Conroy, a Catholic priest, for statements about protecting the poor. And a debate is now swirling over whose theology, Ryan’s or Conroy’s, is more Catholic. Others still are asking whether the invocation itself – potentially touching on a political matter – was proper or whether Ryan has any ability to put restrictions on what the chaplain says.

The controversy, however, doesn’t end with the firing of Conroy. The issue of the hiring of the new chaplain is creating problems of its own. U.S. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), who is on the hiring committee, says he wants to hire a chaplain who has a family and can better relate to the experiences members of Congress face. Of course, such a requirement would preclude the hiring of another Catholic priest. Rep. Connolly responded: “We, on its face, would consider such a remark to be anti-Catholic – on its face. So you’re eliminating anyone who’s a Catholic priest, a Catholic nun, from being the chaplain of the House. The largest denomination in the country.”

Ryan has fed the anti-Catholic concerns with vague remarks like, “not all of my members feel that they got spiritual guidance from him.”

U.S. Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), the only Democrat on the chaplain hiring committee and an ordained Methodist minister, appears to recognize that fighting over the chaplain doesn’t look good for Congress, remarking,  “All I would like is to prevent us from looking like the House of Clowns. And having yet another controversy that may boil down to fighting over religion and which side is right – this is just not healthy.”

But what Cleaver’s statement seems to overlook is that there is no way to have a House chaplain without inviting the “fighting over religion” and determining “which side is right.” It is just that usually, the debate is not so open and visible.

As Charles Haynes, vice president of the Newseum Institute/Religious Freedom Center, tweeted about the current controversy, this is a “case study in why government-funded prayers are bad for authentic religion and violate liberty of conscience.”

Having a chaplain puts the House of Representatives in the position to pick one religious leader over all others. Yet the House membership includes representatives who are Buddhist, Humanist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Orthodox Christian, Catholic, numerous Protestant denominations and those with no religion at all. Some members of the House and the public will be represented while others aren’t, sending a message that Congress has sided with and favors some faiths over others. And with the remarks from some quarters, it seems like there might be an unspoken religious test being placed on the next chaplain’s selection. And that, too, is a big problem.

Of course, the House is unlikely to abolish the chaplaincy because the Supreme Court has upheld legislative chaplains and prayers. But the court has also made clear that governmental bodies must not discriminate based on religion in selecting chaplains. The House should pay heed to that principle, both in picking its next chaplain and in ensuring that its guest chaplains represent reflect the religious diversity of its members and all Americans.

This morning, Conroy’s invocation asked God to give members “the wisdom and magnanimity to lay aside what might divide us.” I might suggest that mixing religion and government is the source of division.

(Photo: U.S. House of Representatives Chaplain the Rev. Patrick Conroy prays during an April 24, 2018, House session. Credit: Screenshot from C-SPAN)