After months of bitter fighting and accusations of religious bigotry, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has named the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, as the new House chaplain.
The controversy over the position erupted in December when Hastert and House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) ignored the recommendations of a bipartisan House committee and passed over the Rev. Tim O'Brien, a Catholic, to support a Protestant, the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian, to become the new House chaplain.
Hastert brought closure to the fiasco yesterday by appointing Coughlin, the vicar for priests in the archdiocese of Chicago. Observers argued that the speaker settled on a Catholic priest to help refute charges that the Republican Party is anti-Catholic. These allegations escalated after GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush appeared at Bob Jones University, a school with a virulently anti-Catholic history.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the controversy surrounding the chaplaincy has severely damaged the reputation of Congress.
"This entire process has been a disaster from the beginning," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This controversy has shown the obvious dangers of mixing religion and government."
Lynn also said there can be little doubt that Coughlin's religious affiliation was the reason he got the job.
"No matter what his qualifications are, Coughlin's appointment to House chaplain was motivated by politics, and nothing more," Lynn added. "A bipartisan committee spent months looking for the right candidate, but Hastert ignored them and selected a Protestant minister. Once Hastert realized this was an election year, he changed his mind and picked a Catholic."
Lynn concluded that the best approach would be for representatives to rely on their own religious advisors, and not ask taxpayers to finance the $136,000 budget of the House chaplain (plus an additional $277,000 for the office of Senate chaplain).
"Having a taxpayer-financed chaplain is misguided and divisive, and Congress would be wise to take a lesson from this mess and abolish the post altogether," Lynn said.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.