Getting Rid Of The Congressional Chaplains

In the quest to bring down the costs of government, some Republicans are talking about replacing the congressional chaplains and their assistants with volunteer clergy. The cut would save $289,000 a year -- and catch the Congress up with decade-old American Atheist demands.

GOP transition team leader Rep. Jim Nussle has said that Republicans should consider replacing the paid, full-time chaplains with a series of volunteer chaplains from different denominations. The chaplaincy appeared on a list of possible cuts after the November elections. Additionally, Rep. Robert Livingston (R-LA), the incoming House Appropriations Committee chairman, has made public his support for ending the chaplaincy.

The Senate chaplain, Richard C. Halverson, claims that the office of the chaplain is necessary because "There's no way a local pastor could identify with the personal needs . . . of the legislators, and their families and the staff, and their hurts and needs and burdens and frustrations, without being here all the time." Though his duties include giving a prayer before the Senate each day, Halverson was quick to point out his other activities. He "wanders the halls" of the Senate "ministering to lawmakers and cooks alike." He counsels tourists and about two people a day by appointment "plus walk-ins." Halverson, who is retiring, receives an annual salary is $155,700. His assistant receives about $50,000. The House chaplain, James David Ford, is paid $123,000.

Congressional sessions have always opened with a prayer. In the 1850s, the House Judiciary Committee considered dispensing with the office as a violation of the First Amendment. From 1855-1861, on political grounds, Congress discontinued hiring a chaplain and instead used local volunteer chaplains.

The practice was challenged in federal court by American Atheists during the 1980s in the suit _Murray v. Buchanan_. First filed on June 13, 1980, as _Murray v. Morton,_ 505 F. Suppl. 144 (D.C. District Court, 1981), the final decision in the suit was in 1982 as _Murray v. Buchanan,_ 674 F.2d 14 (D.C. Cir. 1982). In its decision, the federal district court held that the matter was a political issue and was not ripe for adjudication by a federal court. The merits of the case were not reached.

In 1982, at the same time as the suit, the House passed a resolution asserting "the historic establishment of a chaplaincy to be an appropriate and constitutional exercise." In 1983, the Supreme Court upheld the hiring of a chaplain by the Nebraska legislature, in a case brought by an Atheist legislator.

Commenting on the situation, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said, "The average American worker doesn't have access to a taxpayer-funded chaplain to lead prayer at the beginning of every workday. If the new Republican leadership is serious about reform, let's see them ditch this relic and plow that $289,000 into deficit reduction or use it for some worthy social program." And over 200 years ago, James Madison wrote, "The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of constitutional principles."

Sources: Washington Post, 12/24/94; Chicago Tribune, 12/26/94; American Atheist Newsletter, December 1994.

* WCE 2.0/2394 * American Atheists Online at 512-302-0223