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Chaplain Controversy Hits House GOP

February 1, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ What started as a simple quest to replace a retiring chaplain in the House has turned into a political tempest after Republican leaders snubbed a Catholic priest for the job.

Now the party’s leaders are worried that accusations of an ``anti-Catholic bias″ could hurt GOP candidates next fall with a crucial voting bloc _ members of the largest religious denomination in the country.

The nominee for the $138,000-a-year position, Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister, was selected by Republican leaders over the Rev. Timothy O’Brien, a Catholic priest and the top choice of a bipartisan committee of lawmakers.

Wright has spent the last week meeting with lawmakers in hopes of gaining support. Democratic Rep. Tony Hall of Ohio, a close friend, made an unusual appearance before the House GOP Conference last week on Wright’s behalf, and Wright has been invited to attend a GOP retreat this weekend.

Still, despite the overtures, many Catholics are crying foul, and Democrats have refused to invite Wright to their retreat, also this weekend.

``It has a stink to it,″ said William Donahue, president of the 350,000-member Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. ``What they want to do is keep the chaplain post in Protestant hands. There is a residue of anti-Catholicism embedded in the evangelical community. It shows up more often than some people want to admit.″

Democrats, treading lightly for the most part on the bias allegation, have discussed trying to change the selection process and other measures to register a protest when the House votes on Wright’s appointment, likely later this month.

The nation’s founders made provisions during the First Continental Congress in 1774 to have a chaplain. Over time, that desire has evolved into full-time jobs for clerics, one each in the House and Senate.

The House has never had a Catholic chaplain; the Senate had one in 1832 but he was on the job only a year. The current House chaplain, James David Ford, a Lutheran, is retiring after 21 years. His retirement had been scheduled for January but is on hold while Republicans try to quell the controversy over his successor.

The dispute erupted after an 18-member bipartisan selection committee last October forwarded three finalists to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt.

Those finalists _ Wright, O’Brien and the Rev. Robert Dvorak, an Episcopalian _ were not ranked, said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who co-chaired the selection panel. But it was made known to the three House leaders that O’Brien was the panel’s top choice, with a score of 14.5, compared with 10.5 for Dvorak and 9.5 for Wright, Pomeroy said.

In the end, both sides concede, the decision was Hastert’s, and the speaker chose Wright.

``The speaker put in place a process to find a consensus candidate and in the end, backed away from the process to back a candidate predominantly supported by Republicans,″ Pomeroy said.

The issue has Republicans concerned about relations with the nation’s 30 million Catholic voters.

``There’s a realization that the swing vote is the Catholic vote,″ said John Feehery, a spokesman for Hastert. ``We are concerned that some people might try to politicize the office of the chaplain in order to gain a partisan advantage.″

Hastert invited Cardinal Francis George of Chicago to join him at last week’s State of the Union address. And House Republicans passed a resolution today honoring the contributions of Catholic schools.

The resolution passed by a voice vote but not before some Democrats debated its motive.

``I have to question the timing of this first ever pro-Catholic resolution,″ said Rep. Jerry Klecka, D-Wisc. and a Catholic. ``Let’s see if that pro-Catholic feeling continues to exist when the House has before it the issue on electing the first . . . Catholic chaplain.″

Neither Wright nor O’Brien responded to recent requests for interviews. O’Brien told The Associated Press in December, ``I am convinced that if I were a mainline Protestant minister and not a Catholic priest, I would be the candidate.″

Critics have pounced upon the interview process, noting that at one point Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., asked O’Brien whether his collar would be seen as divisive. The current chaplain, Ford, also wears a collar.

Pomeroy, who attended the interviews, said he saw no ``anti-Catholic″ sentiment in any of the questioning. ``I am not one that suggests there was a bias against a particular denomination that resulted in the selection,″ he said.