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A Spirited Debate on House Chaplain

GOP leaders are accused of religious bias after nominating Presbyterian minister over Catholic priest for ceremonial post.


WASHINGTON — With accusations of religious intolerance roiling the Republican presidential campaign, Capitol Hill has been consumed by its own unlikely furor blending religion and politics as the House seeks to name a new chaplain for the first time in more than two decades.

Just as GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush drew criticism for failing to denounce anti-Catholic views at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, the House's top Republican leaders are under fire for failing to nominate a Catholic priest as House chaplain.

A Catholic has never held the post, and the Republicans are under attack for bypassing a chance to change that.

Normally the chaplain is a noncontroversial, nonpartisan figure, paid $132,000 a year to offer brief prayers at the opening of House sessions and spiritual counseling to its members. The current chaplain, the Rev. James D. Ford, a Lutheran, intended to retire at the end of 1999, but his departure is now on hold.

Committee Majority Supported Priest

Last fall, a bipartisan search committee offered up three finalists for the job, including a Catholic priest, who was supported by 14 out of 18 committee members in a nonbinding, preliminary tally. The committee's co-chairs, Reps. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) and Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), were among the backers of the priest, the Rev. Timothy J. O'Brien, who is a political scientist at Marquette University in Wisconsin.

But House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) chose instead to nominate a Presbyterian minister from the three finalists, igniting criticism from many Democrats and a few Republicans that the GOP leaders had bypassed months of careful committee work and sent a bad signal to millions of Catholic faithful.

Hastert and Armey counter that Democrats are grandstanding and refusing to give a fair hearing to their nominee, the Rev. Charles Parker Wright, who is a leader in the National Prayer Breakfast movement.

Armey Calls Debate a 'Partisan Harangue'

The two ranking Republicans also say that before they made their decision on a nominee, they were unaware of any rankings of the three finalists by the search committee.

"I think the public understands that this is a partisan harangue," Armey told reporters this week. "It is a sad business, but we will just have to work our way through it."

Faced with the brouhaha, Hastert and Armey so far have put off a vote on their choice for chaplain. On Wednesday, Hastert aide John Feehery said, the speaker met with 38 Republican representatives who are Catholic to seek their advice.

Of particular concern to many Republicans is that the chaplain dispute has gotten wide notice in the Catholic press around the country--a potentially serious blow to the GOP in an election year. "It's corrosive for us," lamented one Republican congressional aide.

An editor for the Catholic News Service, based in Washington, said it had run a half dozen stories on the controversy since it became public in December. In addition, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has repeatedly criticized the Republican leadership for what it calls a "tainted" selection process.

Among other possible signs of bias in the selection process, the group cited one search committee document that declared: "While not a qualification, it is extremely beneficial that the chaplain have a strong family life and is a dedicated spouse and parent." That would be a significant hurdle for a priest who takes a vow of celibacy.

"It's a big deal," said Patrick Scully, a spokesman for the league, which is based in New York City and counts 350,000 members. "The interest among our membership is substantial. There's no question that people want to know what is going on. There are some people who are very, very upset about what is happening in Washington."

In part because the post is so obscure, getting an exact count of House chaplains is difficult--House records indicate there have been about 60. Wright, according to House histories, would be the 17th or 18th Presbyterian. The Senate briefly had a Catholic chaplain in the 19th century. While some have said chaplains are an affront to the principle of separation of church and state, the courts have upheld the congressional prerogative to have them.

Democrats insist the current controversy is not their doing. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), one of four Californians on the search committee, wrote to a Capitol Hill weekly newspaper last month: "The Republican leadership should end this unseemly and pathetic spectacle. Let's resolve the chaplain issue and move on."

Democrats Press for Resolutions

But Democrats also have sought to capitalize on a moment of GOP vulnerability with a voting constituency that could play a key role in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections, especially in the Northeast and Midwest.

This week, House and Senate Democrats pressed Congress to pass resolutions condemning religious intolerance and discrimination that they said is prevalent in places such as Bob Jones University.

In a news conference touting the resolution, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) said the House should start its chaplain search over again. The first effort, he said, culminated in "a missed opportunity by the House--the first time in over 200 years to have a Catholic as chaplain. That's the bottom line."

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