U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept.22, 2016. 
Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Paul Ryan forces out House chaplain, sparks new controversy

Updated

The Rev. Patrick Conroy, the House chaplain for the last several years, delivered a prayer on the legislative floor urging lawmakers debating the Republican tax plan that benefits should “balanced and shared by all Americans.”

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The comments were apparently not well received, and Conroy now finds himself out of a job.

Speaker Paul Ryan has ousted the chaplain of the House of Representatives, according to the religious leader’s resignation letter — a move that’s outraged members of both parties who have come to the defense of the Jesuit priest.

The Rev. Patrick Conroy wrote in an April 15 letter to Ryan obtained by NBC News: “As you have requested, I hereby offer my resignation as the 60th Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives.”

The Speaker’s office has argued that Conroy made the decision to resign, but there’s a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. Ryan’s spokesperson has also not provided an explanation for why the chaplain needed to step down.

The result is yet another unfortunate and avoidable congressional controversy. Some members are demanding Ryan explain his reasoning for the Jesuit’s ouster; others are pursuing legislative measures to prevent the Republican leader from forcing Conroy from his position.

As best as I can tell, Conroy is the first House chaplain in American history to be asked to resign.

And while this mess continues to unfold, perhaps it’s worth pausing to ask why Congress has a taxpayer-financed spiritual leader in the first place.

As longtime readers may recall, the U.S. House and U.S. Senate each choose a designated religious leader, whose salaries are paid by American taxpayers, to serve as the respective chambers’ designated chaplains. In Congress’ early days, the idea was that lawmakers would be away from their home districts for many months at a time, so a chaplain could tend to members’ spiritual needs during lengthy legislative sessions.

In modern times, however, congressional chaplains rarely do anything noteworthy, and religious members of Congress are in contact with their own faith leaders in their own communities. Chaplains deliver congressional prayers, often to rooms that are largely empty, but otherwise, they’re generally neither seen nor heard outside Capitol Hill.

The only time the chaplain’s office even comes to the public’s attention is when there’s a controversy. (I covered one such controversy closely many years ago.)

What’s more, James Madison, generally recognized as the father of the U.S. Constitution, believed congressional chaplains are at odds with the First Amendment. Madison specifically wrote, “The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.”

As Paul Ryan deals with an unnecessary controversy of his own making, perhaps lawmakers can see this as an opportunity to question why the public has to pay for a religious leader for politicians?

Congress, House Of Representatives, Paul Ryan and Religion

Paul Ryan forces out House chaplain, sparks new controversy

Updated