How does Congress have chaplains without violating the separation of church and state?

The Rev. Patrick Conroy, former chaplain of the House of Representatives, delivers an interfaith message on the steps of the Capitol in Washington for the victims of the mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando on June 13, 2016. Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest from the Jesuit order, has been forced out after seven years by House Speaker Paul Ryan after complaints by some lawmakers claimed he was too political. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(The Conversation) — Last week, news reports emerged that House Speaker Paul Ryan had forced Father Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest and longtime House chaplain, to resign over what many, including Conroy, have claimed is about the content of his prayer. Speaker Ryan has disputed this account, saying that some members simply wanted a different chaplain to better serve their “pastoral needs.”

We are scholars of religion and American politics who, with Brandeis Ph.D. candidate Margaret Clendenen Minkin, have written about the history and work of congressional chaplains. The present controversy offers a unique opportunity to ask broader questions about why the U.S. Congress employs chaplains and what they do.

History of congressional chaplains

The American tradition of legislative prayer dates to 1774, when Jacob Duché, the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was recruited to offer prayers before the First Continental Congress.

After the Constitution was ratified, the U.S. Senate selected an Episcopal bishop from New York, Samuel Proovost, as its chaplain in April 1789.

For its part, the House of Representatives chose William Linn, a Philadelphia Presbyterian minister, as its first chaplain in May 1789. Proovost and Linn each received an annual salary of $500. After Congress moved to Washington, D.C., local clergy took turns leading prayer before the permanent chaplaincies were institutionalized.

Who are the chaplains today?

Today, congressional chaplains hold full time, nonpartisan, nonsectarian jobs. They are formal officials of the chamber in which they serve. Each chaplain has a staff and is paid as a level IV executive federal employee: currently $164,200.

The chaplains offer public prayers at the beginning of each day of congressional business. They also provide pastoral care for members of Congress and others associated with the House and Senate, including staff, police and family members.

It is noteworthy, however, that they do not demographically represent the American public, and quite strikingly so. Every congressional chaplain since 1789 has been a Christian man, and of those nearly all have been Protestant. Only one, the current Senate chaplain, Rev. Barry Black, has been a person of color. The only time that Muslim and Hindu chaplains have delivered prayers was as one-time guest clergy. It’s the same for women.

Church-state separation?

In a nation in which church-state separation is the law of the land, it has long been controversial to have chaplains formally working for the federal government. During the 1850s, Congress received a number of petitions calling for the elimination of the positions. But chaplains remained.

In 1983 a lawsuit led by Ernest Chambers, a member of the Nebraska State Legislature, to end the practice of legislative prayer reached the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the court decided to defer to historical custom rather than asserting a firm boundary between church and state.

The ConversationIn the current controversy, Father Conroy has become the first congressional chaplain ever to leave office in the middle of a congressional term. Whether Speaker Ryan in fact did ask him to resign due to the content of his prayer does not take away from the historic significance of Conroy’s departure.

(Wendy Cadge is professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, at Brandeis University and Laura R. Olson is professor of Political Science at Clemson University. This article was originally published on The Conversation)

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  • A recent study concluded that the one unifying feature of Donald Trump’s base of support isn’t merely white evangelical Christianity, but more specifically, Christian nationalism:


    These are people who want the USA to become a specifically Christian nation with their own specific set of beliefs enshrined into law, rejecting the long history of religious tolerance and pluralism that has made this country one of the most religious in the world in terms of practice.

    The time has come to let congressional chaplains go find real jobs shepherding real flocks within their own various denominations. As I noted in another article, members of Congress do not respond to any admonition by any member of the clergy. They only respond to one thing: money.

  • I’m not sure why anyone is even still asking whether Congressional chaplains are Constitutional in light of the First Amendment. This question was answered, clearly and explicitly, long ago by none other than the author of the Bill of Rights himself (i.e. James Madison).  

    In his “Detached Memoranda” he wrote:  

    “Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?

    “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes…..  

    “The establishment of the chaplainship to Congs is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected [by the majority] shut the door of worship agst the members whose creeds & consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority. To say nothing of other sects, this is the case with that of Roman Catholics & Quakers who have always had members in one or both of the Legislative branches. Could a Catholic clergyman ever hope to be appointed a Chaplain? To say that his religious principles are obnoxious or that his sect is small, is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers. or that the major sects have a right to govern the minor.”


    There is, for better or worse, no question about the matter. Especially those of the “original intent” camp need to pay attention to the unambiguous statement of “intent” from the man who wrote the First Amendment. It’s that simple. 

  • $164,000/yr. for what? Pushing the belief that prayer works? That Jesus was some kind of deity? That said Jesus resided in some mythical place called heaven and we the “good ones” will join him some day? Give us break!!!

  • The fact that James Madison had a personal opinion which he memorialized in this “Detached Memoranda”


    two years short of 200 years ago, and we still have Congressional chaplains, illustrates two points about the First Amendment and its application:

    – Opinions are not the same as court decisions;

    – Opinions do not override the plain text of the Constitution as amended.

  • We can all talk about Madison’s extra-constitutional opinion about the establishment clause as soon as the libs accept his extra-constitutional explanation of the severely limited nature of federal power and the obligation of the judiciary to be bound by the constitution as written until it is properly amended.

  • Re: “The fact that James Madison had a personal opinion …”  

    You brainless yahoo, the man wrote the freaking First Amendment! What he says about it is NOT, and never will be, merely his “personal opinion.” He told us — in no uncertain terms — what it meant. And his authority comes from the fact that … see if you can follow me here, Bob … he WROTE the freaking thing!  

    What part of this do you not comprehend? Again, and to repeat, the man WROTE the First Amendment. What he says about it, matters. Calling it merely “personal opinion” cannot and will never magically change that.  

    But then … you’re Bob Arnzen, so whatever you say Bob. Whatever you say. Your beliefs about the First Amendment OBVIOUSLY are MUCH more compelling and weighty than anything the guy who freaking wrote it could possibly have had to say about it. Obviously!  

    There’s no arguing with you because there is no arguing with you. You’re a raging, sanctimonious ignoramus … no better than your idol, the Groper-in-Chief, but you refuse to acknowledge any authority beyond yourself and accept no facts that do not bolster your own juvenile emotions.  

  • Agreed !! Chaplains outside of overseas military — are a waste of space.

    Everybody knows a Congressional Chaplain is only there for virtue signaling by representatives to the Christian rubes back home. They have been only Christian since day one…not even one token Jew Chaplain 230 years.

    There are over 300,000 churches and religious facilities in the US…plenty for our Congress to attend. No more phony Chaplains !!

  • Sorry, but the actual PRACTICE was to have chaplains and the same Founding Fathers spent $$$ to pay ministers in the Northwestern Territority.

    The original intent was clear: no national church, but funding of ministers and religious works was 100% permitted by the United States Constitution.

    Sorry to burst your bubble.

  • James Madison may have WANTED that interpretation…..but the members who ratified the Bill of Rights clearly did not.

    Madison as president also funded Catholic and Protestant clergy into Florida when it was aquired as a territory and funded the same for LA and Indiana when they became states.

    Again….sorry to burst your bubble.

  • Calling you a “brainless yahoo” would indicate you had an upgrade.

    He co-authored the First Amendment three decades prior to writing his opinion of hiring chaplains for Congress. Then he was in his prime. When he wrote he was in his seventh decade.

    In order to know what the authors thought the amendment meant, we’d have to find every other authors comments on the same amendment and tally them.

    We’d then have find out what the various state legislatures which approved it thought it meant.

    Get this: his personal opinion has zero legal authority.

    So, in lieu of all that, the courts may seek “legislative intent” by looking at the deliberations, or they may not. The difference is that the court can make an authoritative ruling.

    As to “There’s no arguing with you because there is no arguing with you. You’re a raging, sanctimonious ignoramus … no better than your idol, the Groper-in-Chief, but you refuse to acknowledge any authority beyond yourself and accept no facts that do not bolster your own juvenile emotions.”, this simply illustrates the rather serious emotional issues you’re dealing with which render you both unpersuasive and erratic.

  • Re: “James Madison may have WANTED that interpretation …” 

    What he says about it matters, because he wrote the freaking thing.  

  • Re: “The original intent was clear …”  

    Yes, it was, and Madison said there shouldn’t be Congressional chaplains.  

  • I get it, Bob. You know the First Amendment better than the man who wrote it. Yes, indeed. You are the pinnacle of all knowledge, Bob. You know everything, and your beliefs are perfect and unassailable.  

    As always … whatever you say, Bob. Whatever you say.  

    As for “serious emotional issues,” I’d say those are yours, not mine. I’m not the one who claims to know more about something than the man who wrote it. But hey, of course … whatever you say, Bob. Whatever you say. You’ve gone off the rails in a way I couldn’t have expected … but whatever you say, Bob. Whatever you say.  

  • Actually you don’t get it.

    I have never claimed to be the “pinnacle of all knowledge”.

    I do know that the scribblings of one of several authors thirty years later does not carry the authority of either the final document or an interpretation of the document by a court.

    Instead of addressing that, we get “As always … whatever you say, Bob. Whatever you say. ”

    No, whatever the facts are.

  • “How does Congress have chaplains without violating the separation of church and state?”

    The answer is a simple one — the 1st Amendment’s religion clauses don’t mean what the secularists on the courts and their supporters in the intelligentsia want them to mean, and they don’t dare move against chaplains, prayers at meetings, and the Pledge as they’d like to because of fears of the public backlash it would create.

  • if you want liberals to accept madison’s “severely limited nature of federal power”, conservatives would also have to accept madison’s desire for the federal government to have a veto power of state laws .

    that likely would not happen either .

  • PsiCop, i think you had some ideas in your comment that i might have agreed with but i couldn’t get pass “You brainless yahoo….”

    flash words can extinguish any thought following.

  • one would think that one comes to the internet to learn and to teach .

    i suppose i will never learn the power of incivility and coarseness .

    but i don’t consider that a loss .

  • No, we would not have to. A federal veto power over state laws was considered, debated, rejected, and NOT written into the constitution. Enumerated powers, however, IS in the constitution.

  • Re: “but i don’t consider that a loss”  

    You may not “consider it” a loss, but nevertheless, it IS your loss.  

  • But the people who ratified and wrote the Constitution and Bill Of Rights said otherwise.

  • The man who wrote the First Amendment clearly stated that Congressional chaplains were unconstitutional. Why would you say that’s not significant? Why would you deny what he said?  

  • What Madison said about the legality of Congressional chaplains, is clear and unambiguous. He never took those words back. I have no idea why you say he did.