Politics

Lawmakers Worried About Religious Freedom After Chaplain Ouster

Democrats raise questions about anti-Catholic sentiments from Republicans

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said there’s only division coming out of Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s decision to fire House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Update 8:45 a.m. | A spokesman for Rep. Mark Walkertold USA Today that the congressman was stepping down from the group searching for a new House chaplain.

Emotions are running high in the House as members grapple with Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s decision to fire House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy. And religious tensions started to spill into public view last week before lawmakers departed Washington for a one-week recess.

“This is ugly,” Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri said. “There’s only division coming out of this. Not anything positive.”

Democrats and even some Republicans are raising questions about freedom of religion after Ryan requested the resignation of Father Conroy, a Jesuit priest who has served as House chaplain for seven years. Conroy complied, sending the speaker a letter of resignation April 15 that was read on the House floor last week.

Watch: What We Know About the House Chaplain Controversy So Far

“I certainly hope that the speaker of the House didn’t make a decision based on his interpretation of a prayer,” Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan said, noting that a Republican member had told him directly that it did. “That brings up problems … really raises questions about religious freedom.”

North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones also raised concerns about freedom of religion. 

Conroy himself told The New York Times on Thursday that he is still unclear about the reason Ryan asked for his resignation as he was never given anything in writing. But he pointed to concerns the speaker’s staff raised with him regarding a prayer he delivered Nov. 6 during the the tax overhaul 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 said in the prayer. 

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

About a week later, Conroy said a Ryan staffer communicated that the speaker’s office was upset by the prayer and felt he was getting too political and Ryan later said to him directly, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”

Ryan told the Republican Conference on Friday that his decision was not about any of Conroy’s prayers but rather numerous complaints he had received from members who felt the chaplain wasn’t meeting their pastoral needs. 

The problem with that explanation, beyond the fact that Democrats aren’t exactly buying it, is that the only members who’ve appeared to complain are Republicans, creating the appearance that Ryan’s decision was political. 

“During Father Conroy’s entire service, I’ve never received a complaint from our members about him pastoring to the needs of the House,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said. 

Several Democrats also said they’ve never heard any complaints. Some Republicans had said they had heard members voice frustrations with Conroy, but the only ones who had weren’t willing to speak on the record about those complaints. 

“The speaker made it clear — and I totally trust him on this — that there were no politics involved,” Colorado GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn said after the Republican Conference meeting. 

‘Anti-Catholic’

Ryan is Catholic, but suggestions have been raised that either he or more evangelical members of his Republican Conference were uncomfortable with some of Conroy’s beliefs. Jesuits are known for having more liberal religious views compared to some more traditional Catholics and other religions. 

New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a Catholic Democrat, called Ryan’s decision to fire Conroy “spineless, outrageous” and “anti-Catholic.”

“Why are we firing a Catholic at the behest of a bunch of conservative radicals? You tell me,” he said when asked why he used the latter description. “What has he done? What is the possible justification?”

Maloney worried that Ryan’s move to oust Conroy, the first time a House chaplain has been pushed out in the middle of his term, sets a dangerous precedent. 

“Are we going to have Democratic prayers now and Republican prayers now?” he said. “Is that what we’re coming to?”

Conroy is only the second Roman Catholic to serve as House chaplain, picked by former Speaker John A. Boehner, also a Catholic, to succeed the first. 

“We had 60 chaplains in the U.S. House, so it’s only a function of modern history that anyone of the Catholic faith has been elected chaplain of the U.S. House,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur said. 

Watch: Booing, Interruptions on the House Floor After Chaplain Resignation

“A chaplain doesn’t represent their denomination. The chaplain represents religious freedom on the floor of Congress — and there’s a long constitutional history about all that. ... So it does make one wonder in the way it was handled,” the Ohio Democrat added when asked if she thought religious tensions contributed to Conroy’s ouster.

Rep. Bradley Byrne dismissed concerns that Ryan’s decision was rooted in religious beliefs. 

“I think that is total nonsense when the person making the decision is not just a Roman Catholic, but a devout Roman Catholic,” the Alabama Republican said. “And I know he’s a devout Roman Catholic because I’ve spoken to the speaker about these things many times. I’ve seen him go to church.”

Byrne, an Episcopalian, said he is more concerned now with who will take Conroy’s place. 

“If we’re hearing that there’s some members that felt like their pastoral needs weren’t taking care of, then we need to find a pastor,” he said. “And a pastor is not the same thing as somebody who’s just administrative, who gets to say the prayer every day.”

Successor group tensions

Ryan has asked Georgia GOP Rep. Doug Collins, a military chaplain, to lead a bipartisan group in recommending possible replacements for Conroy.

Walker, a Baptist pastor who now attends a nondenominational church, was also to serve, along with one other Republican. 

Pelosi asked Cleaver, a United Methodist pastor, to serve on behalf of the Democrats, and he said he needs to speak with her about what other two members of their caucus will join him in the group.

But before the group could even start meeting, there were some tensions between Walker and Cleaver. 

Walker had made a comment Thursday about what he wanted in the next House chaplain that Cleaver had initially described as “bigoted.”

Specifically, Walker had said he was looking for “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.”

Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy, so Democrats interpreted his comment about children as disqualifying Catholics. Walker followed up to clarify he was not disqualifying Catholic priests because of that vow and was just looking for someone with family experience. 

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

Told that Walker clarified his comment, Cleaver said, “I’m sure he did.” And later in the conversation with reporters when it was mentioned that Walker was going to be serving on the selection group with him, which Cleaver did not previously know, he rolled his eyes. 

No more than half an hour later, Walker and Cleaver were spotted having a conversation. 

“We’re all good,” Walker told reporters after that conversation, saying he talked to other Democrats who were upset as well to clarify his comment. “They kind of looked at my body of work in the last three years I’ve been here. I’m not anti-anybody.” 

Cleaver said he appreciated Walker’s clarification and said he’d be able to work with him in the chaplain successor group. 

“We have agreed to some things that we’re going to jointly do to try to lower the temperature,” he said. 

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