Why Is There a House Chaplain, Anyway?

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., ended months of controversy Thursday when he appointed the Rev. Daniel Coughlin of Chicago, a Catholic priest, to be House chaplain. Why isn’t the position of House chaplain an unconstitutional establishment of religion under the First Amendment? And how did the controversy start in the first place?

The public duty of the chaplain, who is paid $132,100 a year, is to say the opening prayer each day the House is in session. In practice, the chaplain also arranges for guest chaplains, provides counseling for members, families, and staff, and performs functions such as weddings. There have been 58 House chaplains in 210 years.

In 1983, the Supreme Court upheld the practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer offered by a paid chaplain. The 6-3 decision, Marsh vs. Chambers, was based mostly on history and tradition. The First Congress voted to appoint and pay a chaplain for each House in the very same week they voted to approve the First Amendment. Because the Congress has always had a paid chaplain, the court reasoned, the Founders must have felt “legislative prayer” to be compatible with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”)

The court’s dissenting opinion, however, noted that legislators “do not always pass sober constitutional judgment.” James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, voted for the bill authorizing payment of the first congressional chaplains but later wrote that the practice was unconstitutional. He also doubted a Catholic priest could ever hope to be appointed chaplain of the House or Senate.

Last week, Hastert proved Madison wrong on one point by appointing Coughlin as the first Catholic House chaplain. (The Senate had a Catholic chaplain in 1832.) Nonetheless, the House was mired in a debate for several months over whether the Rev. Timothy O’Brien, a Catholic priest, or the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister, should be House chaplain.

O’Brien was the favorite of a bipartisan search committee made up of nine Republicans and nine Democrats. The committee’s mandate, however, was only to deliver three names to the House leadership (consisting of Hastert; Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.; and Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas), who would then select the chaplain. After interviewing O’Brien, Wright, and the Rev. Robert Dvorak, Hastert and Armey voted for Wright, and Gephardt voted for O’Brien.

O’Brien immediately accused Republicans of anti-Catholic bias. Prominent Republican Henry Hyde, R-Ill., told columnist Mark Shields, “I hate to think that this is anti-Catholic bigotry, but I don’t know what other conclusion to draw.” Hastert and Armey say they chose Wright simply because he was more personable. Some Democrats voiced suspicions of anti-Catholic bias, saying that O’Brien was asked inappropriate questions about his collar and the ability of a celibate priest to counsel married couples. More often, Democrats seemed upset because Wright was not a bipartisan choice. (Pomeroy said Democrats felt “wronged.”)

Using the speaker’s privilege, Hastert ultimately appointed Coughlin, who had not been a finalist.

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