Firing of House chaplain creates uproar on Capitol Hill

Republicans demand explanation from Ryan, Democrats attempt to force the House to investigate decision

Washington: Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s abrupt decision to dismiss the House chaplain triggered an uproar on Friday over religion on Capitol Hill, pitting Republican against Republican and offering Democrats a political opportunity in a year already moving their way.

Ryan moved quietly two weeks ago to remove the chaplain, Rev Patrick J. Conroy — so quietly that some lawmakers assumed the Catholic priest was retiring. But in an interview on Thursday with The New York Times, Conroy said he was blindsided when Ryan asked him to resign and suggested politics — specifically a prayer he gave in November when Congress was debating a tax overhaul — may have been a factor in the speaker’s decision.

Conroy prayed then for lawmakers to “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans”. Shortly after, he said, he was admonished by Ryan, who is also a Roman Catholic.

“Padre, you just got to stay out of politics,” he recalled the speaker saying.

As reports of the dismissal circulated in the Capitol, some Republicans, in a closed-door meeting on Friday morning, demanded an explanation from Ryan, while Democrats commandeered the House floor in a boisterous, if unsuccessful, attempt to force the House to investigate Ryan’s decision.

At the House Republican meeting, Ryan told lawmakers that complaints about Conroy’s pastoral care — not politics or prayer — led to his decision, according to several who attended. The speaker’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said simply that he had “made the decision he believes to be in the best interest of the House”.

But the dismissal appears to be an unforced error in a political year when Republicans cannot afford mistakes. The controversy exposed long-simmering tensions between Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians over who should be lawmakers’ religious counsellor. And a public clash between Southern evangelical Republicans and Northern Catholics could play to the advantage of Democrats, who are pressing hard to bring working-class Catholic regions in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin back into the Democratic fold.

The controversy was heightened when Representative Mark Walker, Republican, North Carolina, a Baptist minister, said on Thursday in an interview with The Hill newspaper that he hoped the next chaplain of the House might come from a non-denominational church tradition who could relate to members with wives and children.

Catholic Democrats quickly called his remarks anti-Catholic, as Catholic priests are celibate, and Walker’s spokesman later said Walker was not excluding a particular faith group. One Republican, Representative Peter T. King of New York, took issue with the comments.

“To be excluding one religion up front, that has all sorts of connotations coming from the evangelical community,” King said in an interview. He said he had received several inquiries from priests about Ryan’s decision and told the speaker, “This issue is not going to go away that quickly.”

A House Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said Ryan gave the Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, an additional reason for Conroy’s ouster: Ryan said he was upset that the chaplain had granted an interview to The National Journal.

In the interview, Conroy expounded on matters like sexual harassment and a possible spiritual crisis in Congress. He said he was asked during his job interview whether he had ever molested a child. And while he said he had never been asked to counsel a victim of sexual harassment or assault, he had handled cases of workplace abuse during his tenure in the House.

The outrage broke down largely along party lines. Of 148 members of Congress who signed a letter to Ryan demanding answers on why he ousted Conroy, just one, Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, is a Republican.

“This will have ramifications,” Jones said on Friday afternoon. “This is bigger than Father Conroy and the House of Representatives. This is about religion in America.”

The controversy was multifaceted, pitting evangelicals against Catholics but also resurfacing lingering anger over this Congress’ singular accomplishment, the 10-year, $1.5-trillion overhaul of the tax code.

To supporters of that legislation, especially one of its chief architects, Ryan, the prayer issued by Conroy would have stung: “May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle,” the priest said in the midst of the debate. “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”

Conroy, who was named to the post in 2011 by another Catholic Republican speaker, John A. Boehner, said he did not regard his November prayer as political in nature.

“If you are hospital chaplain, you are going to pray about health,” he said. “If you are a chaplain of Congress, you are going to pray about what Congress is doing.”

He said the speaker’s remarks to him afterward marked the only time anyone from the speaker’s office had chastised him for veering into the political realm: “I’ve never been talked to about being political in seven years.”

In an election that ultimately will revolve around President Donald Trump, the controversy may well prove ephemeral.

“Whatever Democrats try to do, if they try to politicise this or capitalise on this, I just think it is way too obscure,” said Douglas Heye, a longtime Republican political strategist and a Catholic. “If you are having a larger conversation about ‘Catholic issues,’ Trump is going to dominate that.”

Ten years ago on Capitol Hill, the number of Catholic Democrats in the House was more than double the number of Catholic Republicans. Now it is nearly even.

Some on the left see an emerging issue for Ryan and his supporters. “Partisans will likely frame this as a Catholic versus evangelical contest,” said Christopher J. Hale, a strategist who did Catholic outreach for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. “They made a political football out of a good Catholic priest.”


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