March 2000 Church & State | Featured

When the Rev. James Ford, the current chaplain of the U.S. House of Repre­sentatives, announced he was retiring after 21 years on the job, House leaders seemed interested in a fair process to choose a qualified replacement.

What they got instead was a bitter and divisive fight, accusations of religious bigotry and calls for Congress to eliminate the chaplaincy altogether.

The search for Ford's replacement began without controversy. A bipartisan committee of 18 House members, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and chaired by Reps. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) and Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), was selected to narrow the field of nearly 50 candidates. Seventeen applicants were interviewed and six semi­­­finalists received a second invitation to chat with the committee before three finalists were chosen by secret ballot.

After six months of work, the clear choice was the Rev. Timothy O'Brien, a Catholic priest and political science professor with Marquette University.

In fact, when a congressional report on the selection process was released in January, it reflected that O'Brien was the overwhelming favorite, receiving 14 endorsements from committee members. The Rev. Robert Dvorak, an Epis­copalian, came in second with 10.5, while the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presby­terian minister who has worked with the National Prayer Breakfast, came in third with only 9.5.

In a nationally syndicated column, pundit Mark Shields detailed the enthusiastic support for O'Brien from committee members. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) described O'Brien as "truly extraordinary." Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said O'Brien was "by far the best." Committee co-chair Pomeroy found O'Brien to be "a fabulously well-qualified candidate."

By all accounts, committee members went out of their way to remove politics and partisanship from the selection process. Shields described the panel's efforts as being "uniformly praised for both fairness and openness."

O'Brien was set to enter some very select company. According to historian Anson Stokes in his book, Church and State in the United States, of the 58 House chaplains only one has been Catholic; the rest were Protestants. The Senate selected its first and only Catholic chaplain, the Rev. Charles Constantine Pise, in 1832, but he served only one year. The other 60 Senate chaplains have been Protestants.

While the search committee favored O'Brien, it was not empowered to send its choice to the House floor for a final vote. That responsibility was left to an even more powerful group: House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas) and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Gephardt agreed with the conclusion of the committee and cast his vote for O'Brien. Hastert and Armey, however, decided on Wright, saying that they believed he had the "best interpersonal and counseling skills."

Almost immediately, the Republican House leaders, both of whom are evangelical Protestants, came under fire for passing over the Catholic priest and choosing a Protestant minister.

O'Brien is convinced that it was his faith that prevented him from getting the job.

"I hope and pray that the 1960 presidential election did away with the idea of Catholics as not being fully Americans," O'Brien said in an interview with The New York Times. "I'm not convinced that the prejudicial view is gone, and I do believe that if I were not a Catholic priest, I would be the House chaplain." (After his comments were published in the Times, O'Brien received 68 media requests from news organizations. He turned them down and has since stopped granting requests for interviews.)

The selection of Wright over O'Brien was not the only factor that raised the specter of anti-Catholic bigotry. Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) asked O'Brien during a committee interview whether the priest planned to wear his collar around the Capitol and whether this part of his wardrobe might be seen as "divisive."

Making matters worse, another Republican member of the search committee, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), wondered aloud whether a Catholic priest, sworn to celibacy, would be able to relate and counsel members of Congress with family problems.

When each of the three finalists were brought in to meet with the three House leaders, Armey only exacerbated concerns over anti-Catholic bias by talking with O'Brien about the people Armey grew up with who didn't like Catholics.

O'Brien told The New York Times he was "a bit shocked" when Armey "indicated that he came from North Dakota originally and was raised in a very anti-Catholic environment, and I thought that was kind of a strange comment to make."

Rep. Jerry Kleczka (D-Wis.) originally encouraged O'Brien to seek the position.

"It's a sad story," Kleczka told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "You're not going to find a more qualified individual. The process was rigged. I don't know why the Republicans did not just say at the outset, 'Catholics need not apply.'"

Catholic members of Congress from both sides of the aisle were drawing the same conclusions.

"It's absolute bigotry," Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) told the Dallas Morning News. "It's a discriminatory act based on a person's belief rather than the services he can provide."

Even Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chair­man of the House Judiciary Com­mittee, told reporters, "I hate to think it is anti-Catholic bigotry, but I don't know what other conclusion to draw. Why have a committee and ignore the committee's hard work?"

Hastert and Armey distributed a letter to fellow House Republicans after the controversy broke, insisting they were "disappointed and offended" by comments suggesting anti-Catholic bigotry on their part.

Yet as the controversy grew larger, and demands for an explanation from angered Catholics grew louder, Hastert and Armey struggled to put together a rationale that would satisfy their critics. Initially, both questioned O'Brien's counseling experience in light of his academic and professorial background.

As the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and other O'Brien supporters have been quick to point out, however, O'Brien has a degree in pastoral ministry, including an emphasis on counseling. Further, he worked as a part-time chaplain at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and spent five years as an associate pastor at a church in Milwaukee, working with thousands of families.

Catholic League President William Donohue, usually an ally of the Republican congressional leadership, has led the crusade in support of O'Brien. His group sent letters of protest to all 435 members of the House and issued lengthy press statements on the controversy once a week between late-December and early-February. (O'Brien served as the national director of communications for the group from 1979 to 1982.)

"It has a stink to it," said Donahue of the ordeal. "What they want to do is keep the chaplain post in Protestant hands. There is a residue of anti-Catholicism embedded in the evangelical community. It shows up more often than some people want to admit."

As rancorous as the current chaplaincy fight has been, it is not the first of such arguments. In fact, throughout the history of the position, controversies have been rare, but not unprecedented.

When the 35th Congress (1858-59) was charged with selecting a House chaplain, it failed to do so. As historian Stokes described it, political differences impeded the process.

"The long break [with­­out a chaplain]...seems to have been due to the fact that the chaplaincy had fallen into disrepute because the elections were marred by politics," Stokes wrote.

Furthermore, in 1852 the House Judiciary Committee considered a proposal to abolish the position. The attempt, however, was defeated in committee.

In the current controversy, a growing chorus has deplored the ugliness of the fight and questioned the necessity of the chaplain's office.

Critics noted the cost to taxpayers. Currently, the House chaplain is paid $132,100 a year, only about $5,000 less than the salary of the members of Congress he serves. (The office of the Senate Chaplain has a separate $277,000 budget that is also financed by tax dollars.) The federal budget allocates an additional $4,000 to the House chaplain's office.

The burden to taxpayers is compounded by the chaplain's travel. A recent report from the Scripps Howard News Service announced that Ford, the current chaplain, has accompanied members of Congress on visits to 29 countries, including seven countries twice, in just the last six years. Ford reported more than $20,000 in expenses during his travel, but that figure does not include the transportation costs.

Ford defends the trips by saying that they help him to get to know the members.

"It's my way of trying to be with this group as much as I can," Ford said. "I've been here a long time. I have done everything I could over these years to get to know the members."

In addition to financial concerns, chaplaincy critics question the limited practical importance of the position. Through the course of his professional responsibilities, a chaplain may be asked to counsel members and their families, host Bible-study meetings or perform weddings and funeral services. But, as C-SPAN watchers may have seen, the House chaplain's most recognizable responsibility is delivering the prayer that opens each session of Congress. Those same watchers of the cable network also know, however, that members' attendance is voluntary and few if any people actually show up to hear the invocations.

In fact, disinterest has been a chronic problem for congressional chaplains. James Madison, for example, in his "Detached Memoranda" essays, openly questioned the post's value, noting the "scanty attendance" at the chaplains' daily prayers in the early 1800s. The entire process, he said, was "degenerating into...a tiresome formality."

Critics also pointed to the constitutional questions that need to be addressed. For supporters of church-state separation, the idea of taxpayers financing the salary, office and travel of a religious leader to serve elected officials appears to be in conflict with the First Amendment. This argument also was bolstered by the words of Madison.

A champion of church-state separation and the man chiefly responsible for writing the First Amendment, Madison was a member of a House committee that helped select the first congressional chaplain. However, he came to view this as a mistake and later wrote in opposition to 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 added that members of Congress could set a good example of voluntary religion by paying for their own religious worship. "Let them like their Constituents do so at their own expense," he observed.

With these questions hanging over the chaplain's position and the selection process, Americans United for Separ­a­tion of Church and State called on Speaker Hastert to end the controversy by simply doing away with the position.

In a Dec. 6 letter to Hastert, AU's executive director, Barry W. Lynn, said the conflict over the chaplaincy "demonstrates anew why that post should be abolished.

"[R]eligious wrangling is...almost inevitable when a government post is devoted solely to religious matters," Lynn wrote. "America is a broadly diverse nation in matters of faith. To select a clergyman from one tradition (and reject all those from other traditions) is virtually certain to unleash charges of favoritism. The answer is not to try to improve the selection process, but to abolish the post of House chaplain. Such a move would be in keeping with the church-state separation principle provided in our Constitution."

In the weeks that followed, other voices took up Lynn's position.

The Kansas City Star, for example, said, "The recent flap over appointment of a chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives provides a chance to wonder anew whether it's appropriate for tax dollars to pay for such a person in either the House or Senate." The paper also encouraged congressional leaders to "rethink the whole system of legislative chaplains."

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution expressed a similar sentiment. "Why have the House and Senate institutionalized (at a salary of $136,000 a year) the job of offering spiritual counsel to their members and saying opening prayers each day they're in session?" the Journal and Constitution asked. "Can't the mem­bers find competent spiritual advisers on their own in the Washington metro area?"

Unfortunately for supporters of church-state separation, legal recourse is not available because the U.S. Supreme Court has already supported the constitutionality of taxpayer-financed legislative chaplains. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled in Marsh v. Chambers that the practice of paying legislative chaplains does not violate the First Amendment.

In a 6-3 decision, the justices overturned two lower court decisions and ruled that legislative prayer is a "deeply-embedded practice" that has become "part of the fabric of our society."

Legal or not, Hastert and Armey recognized the chaplain ordeal as a political disaster but failed to find an adequate resolution to the problem they created.

The House was supposed to vote on approving the next chaplain Jan. 27 when it reconvened for its second session. The decision was postponed because of the protests and Armey told reporters he wanted to give time to his fellow members to "get to know" Wright before the final floor vote.

In the interim, accusations continued to fly and House leaders could do little to placate their critics. On Feb. 1, Republican leaders successfully pushed a House resolution praising the work of Catholic schools, and some speculated the move was part of a leadership strategy to remove the appearance of anti-Catholic bias. The same members who felt O'Brien had been slighted for being Catholic said they felt they were being patronized.

"One could ask, why is this being done?" Kleczka asked during the floor debate on the Catholic school resolution. "We have had Catholic School Week celebrated is this country for years and years. I hope that same level of pro-Catholicism exists when the House later this month has before it the appointment of a chaplain."

As Church & State went to press, Hastert and Armey had yet to set a date for Wright's floor vote, apparently unsure of what the vote's outcome would be and unwilling to risk the political embarrassment that would come if Wright were defeated.

Evangelist Billy Graham added to the chaplaincy conflict when the news media reported that he had telephoned Hastert on Wright's behalf Feb. 14. The action exacerbated the Protestant-Cath­olic tensions.

House Democrats, meanwhile, have expressed no interest in letting the issue die. Roll Call, a newspaper covering politics on Capitol Hill, reported that House Democrats are considering a series of options, including a vote to defeat Wright's confirmation.

Whatever the outcome, severe damage has already been done.

"After the committee expressed its preference for O'Brien, some in the House leadership turned a simple process into a comedy of errors," AU's Lynn said. "Whether the allegations of religious intolerance are true or not, the charge of religious bigotry damages the reputation of the House and undermines the public's confidence in the House leadership's commitment to religious non­­dis­crim­ination.

"There's a simple lesson to be learned from fiascos like this: religion and government just don't mix," concluded Lynn. "Whether Congress has learned this lesson still remains to be seen."