IFAS | Freedom Writer | March/April 2000 | chaplain.html

Legislative chaplains

Sometimes courts rely upon history to make their decisions for them. They use the concept of a tradition being "deeply rooted in the fabric of our society" to justify poor decisions, as they did in the 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers (463 US 783) upholding the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer offered by a state-paid chaplain. The court distinguished school prayer from legislative prayer by citing the unique history of legislative prayer. The Court noted that the practice of legislative prayer was begun as far back as the Continental Congress in 1774, a clear indication, it said, that the framers of the constitution did not view legislative prayer as a constitutionally impermissible activity.

Chief Justice Burgerís opinion concluded: "In light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an 'establishment' of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country."

Chief Justice Burger never reconciled his majoritarian view and his majority opinion with the constitutional prohibition for religious tests for any office. A chaplain, by the nature of her work, must endorse religion. Because Article VI of the Constitution specifically prohibits religious tests for any office or public trust under the United States, the position of House Chaplain is unconstitutional.

It is interesting to note that the position of House Chaplain has been filled for the last 210 years by 58 Protestant chaplains. Until March 2000, no Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Mormons, or adherents of other religious traditions had ever been selected to fill this post. In December 1999, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Speaker Dennis Hastert chose the Reverend Charles Parker Wright, a Presbyterian minister, to be the next House chaplain.

The publicly funded position of House Chaplain pays $132,100 per year. This is a blatant example of public funds being used to promote religion. In February, House Majority Leader Dick Armey denounced Democrats who contended that his anti-Catholic bias played a role in his choice of a new house chaplain.

Consequently, the Rev. Wright withdrew his candidacy for the House chaplaincy and Speaker Hastert unilaterally appointed Father Daniel Coughlin of Chicago, a Roman Catholic priest.

© 2000 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.