Politics

Kaptur Exploring Legislative Reprieve for Ousted House Chaplain

Ohio Democrat said any legislation she proposes would be bipartisan

House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy performs a marriage ceremony in 2015 for Alaska Rep. Don Young and Anne Garland Walton in the chapel of the U.S. Capitol. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Marcy Kaptur does not believe Speaker Paul D. Ryan has authority to remove House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy without a vote of the House. And she’s exploring legislation to prevent his ouster. 

Conroy submitted a letter of resignation April 15 at the speaker’s request that was read on the House floor the following day. Ryan’s spokeswoman AshLee Strong confirmed that Ryan sought the Jesuit priest’s resignation but did not provide a reason why. 

Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., and Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., both pointed to a prayer that Conroy delivered on the tax overhaul as the reason he was asked to leave. Jones said he spoke with Conroy and he confirmed that, saying the only intended meaning of the prayer was that the tax bill should help everyone. 

“As legislation on taxes continues to be debated this week and next, 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,” Conroy said his Nov. 6 prayer on the House floor.  “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.”

Watch: The Prayer That Might Have Landed House Chaplain in Hot Water

A senior GOP aide said there was not a specific prayer that led to Ryan’s decision. Conroy’s resignation comes more than five months after he delivered the prayer on the tax debate but just days after Ryan announced his plans to retire from Congress at the end of his term. 

“If we cannot protect freedom of prayer on the floor of the House, there is no hope for America. None,” Jones said. “This chaplain is elected by all the members we vote on. And this should be a vote by all the members for him not to be here.”

No rule for removal?

Like Jones, Kaptur also spoke with Conroy, who was reluctant to talk about his resignation but upon her pressing revealed it was a request from the speaker. 

“I said, ‘But why?’ and he didn’t say anything,” she said. “So I went back to my staff and ... looked at the rules of procedure for the House under the section dealing with the chaplain. ... As an officer of the House, this should have consideration if there’s no cause. I mean what’s the cause?”

Indeed the Jefferson’s Manual and Rules of the House of Representatives identifies the chaplain as an officer of the House, along with the speaker, clerk, sergeant-at-arms and chief administrative officer. The manual says the officers shall be elected at the commencement of each Congress.

While the speaker’s term expires with the conclusion of each Congress, the other officers “continue in office until their successors are chosen and qualified,” the manual says. 

“The clerk, sergeant-at-arms, and chief administrative officer may be removed by the House or by the speaker,” the manual says, while making no mention of the procedure for removing the chaplain. 

If the matter should be subject to a vote it’s unclear whether Conroy waived that by submitting his resignation. 

Legislative remedy?

Kaptur is continuing to dig into the matter. The longest-serving woman in the House said she has not seen anything like this in her nearly three dozen years serving in this institution. 

“I don’t think it’s fair,” she said, calling the Conroy’s ouster “more than a little suspicious.”

Asked if there’s a procedural action members could take, like filing a privileged resolution reinstate Conroy, Kaptur said, “I am certainly of that mind. But I want to work on a bipartisan basis. I don’t want to make it a partisan thing. This is about a person and justice has to prevail.”

Kaptur said any procedural action would be about treating Conroy,  with the respect he deserves as an officer of the House. 

“For me as a Catholic with everything else that has gone in my church with cover-ups and all the rest, I feel a special responsibility to not have someone’s reputation damaged,” she said. 

Kaptur said she was surprised that Ryan, who is also Catholic, would make this decision. She said Conroy didn’t say much when she spoke with him, but noted, “I think he’s deeply hurt.”

Group formed to vet successors

While Kaptur and others look for ways to keep Conroy in his position — Crowley, for example, is calling on Ryan to reconsider his decision — conversations about the next House chaplain have begun. 

Ryan has asked Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., to lead a bipartisan group of members in looking at potential replacements for Conroy. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., will serve as the lead member of the group for the Democrats. 

Collins, a military chaplain for 17 years, said there’s no set number of members for the group yet or timeline for the group to submit recommendations. He predicted it could take a few months and a replacement would likely not be ready before Conroy’s May 24 resignation date. 

“This decision will be on the speaker ultimately,” Collins said. 

Collins said he is not looking for candidates of a specific faith, just ones who have “a heart for people,“ relate well to others and can listen. 

Rep. Mark Walker, chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, is also serving on the group that will recommend the next chaplain. Both he and Collins said they had no issues with Conroy and were not familiar with Ryan’s reason for asking him to resign. 

As for successors, Walker, who served as a pastor for nearly 20 years before running for Congress, said he’s looking for someone with a nondenominational background that has a multicultural congregation or an otherwise diverse background.

The North Carolina Republican also said he’d prefer “somebody who has a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here, Republicans or Democrats as far as what we’re going through back home — you’ve got the wife, the family, things you encounter — that has some counseling experience or has managed or worked with people, maybe a larger church size, being able to have that understanding or that experience.”

While Walker had initially specified someone with children and said “having somebody who’s walked in those shoes I think allows you to immediately relate a little bit more than others.”

Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy. Walker followed up with the reporters he made his comments to clarify he was not disqualifying Catholic priests because of that vow. 

“When I say family experience I mean that you’ve been a priest or pastor over a parishioner with families who have situations, adult children, those kinds of things.”

Watch: House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy Pray on the Capitol Steps for Victims in Orlando

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