Dec 06, 1999

The "ugly and divisive" religious conflict in the House of Representatives over selection of a new chaplain shows why the office should be abolished, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a Dec. 6 letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn noted that one candidate for the job has charged that he was passed over by the House leadership because he is a Roman Catholic priest.

The Rev. Timothy J. O'Brien says he was the top choice of a bipartisan House search committee, but he was pushed aside by Speaker Hastert and Majority Leader Dick Armey in favor of the Rev. Charles Parker Wright, a Presbyterian minister.

"Whether this allegation is true or not," observed AU's Lynn, "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.

"The answer," Lynn continued, "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."

Lynn noted that James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, objected to congressional chaplaincies, calling them a "palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles." Madison said congressional chaplains would come from the majority Protestant faith, excluding Catholics, Quakers and others from minority traditions. (Only two Catholics and two Unitarians have occupied the chaplains' offices in the House and Senate, while dozens of Protestants have held the jobs.)

Lynn said abolition of chaplain's office would also save tax dollars. The office is allocated $136,000 for one year's operation in the current budget (the office of Senate chaplain has a $277,000 budget). Few House members actually attend the opening prayers led by the chaplain, Lynn said.

The House is scheduled to vote on Wright's appointment when it resumes work in January. AU's Lynn urged Speaker Hastert to give House members the option of canceling the chaplain's office altogether at that time.