Ilona Nickels
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Accountability of Elected Officials
Career Paths to Congress
Chaplains in the U.S. Congress
House Ethics Process
House/Senate Differences
Lame Duck Congress: Attendance and Voting
Members of Congress: A Job Description
Members of Congress: Who Do They Represent?
Oath of Office for Members of Congress
Pledge of Allegiance: Standing for the Pledge
Pledge of Allegiance: Use in Congress
Qualifications to Run for Congress
Senate: 50-50 Split?
Senate Majority Leader: A Job Description
Sessions of Congress: Lengths
Size of House and Senate
Speaker of the House: a Job Description
Amending the Constitution
Constitutionality of Legislation
August Recesses
First Congress
GOP: Origins of Term
Ideology: Left or Right
Lame Duck Congress: Definition
Party Animals: the Donkey and the Elephant
Statue of Freedom
U.S. Citizenship Test
Amendment Tree in the Senate
Changing a Law
Conference Committees: In Decline
Conference Committees: Procedures
“Deem and Pass” Procedure
Executive Orders
Holds in the Senate
How to Find Basic Legislative Information
How to Keep Up With Congress
Types of Legislation

Capitol Corner

Chaplains in the U.S. Congress

Have the House and Senate always had chaplains? Isn't having one in Congress a violation of the separation of church and state?

Chaplains in the U.S. Congress by Ilona NickelsThere have been persistent critics over the years who have charged the practice of official chaplains violates the concept of separation of church and state. In 1983, the Supreme Court upheld the practice of having an official chaplain as deeply ingrained in the history and tradition of this country. (Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783) They stated the ultimate authority for the position lies in the Constitution which states that the House and Senate may each choose their officers, with no restrictions on what kind of officers may be chosen. Using that authority, both chambers have continued to elect an officer to act as Chaplain.

Since 1789, the Senate has had 62 chaplains; the House 60. The chaplains are full-time paid officers of the House and Senate. The budget for their salaries, office staff, and operating expenses are funded completely through the annual legislative branch appropriations bill. The legislative branch appropriations funding Congress come out of the U.S. Treasury.

In 2004, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the right of Congress to have paid chaplains and open legislative sessions with prayer and based its ruling on the earlier 1983 Supreme Court decision, cited above.

The just retired House Chaplain, Rev. Daniel Coughlin, a Catholic priest, was appointed on March 23, 2000. Rev. Coughlin announced his retirement in April, 2011. Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have nominated another Catholic priest, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, formerly chaplain of Georgetown University, to be the next chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is expected to be elected to the position by the full House before the end of May 2011.

Chaplains in the U.S. Congress by Ilona NickelsHouse chaplains have come from ten denominations: Methodist (21), Presbyterian (17), Baptist (8), Episcopalian (4), Christian (2), Congregationalist (2), Unitarian (2), Lutheran (1), Universalist (1), and Roman Catholic (2). For a complete list of all House Chaplains, see the House Art and History website. You can access a beautifully illustrated brochure about House chaplains by clicking on the “Chaplain’s Office Brochure,” under “Additional Resources,” on the House Chaplain’s website.

Chaplains in the U.S. Congress by Ilona NickelsSenate chaplains have represented nine Denominations: Episcopalian (19), Methodist (17), Presbyterian (14), Baptist (6), Unitarian (2), Congregationalist (1), Lutheran (1), Roman Catholic (1), and Seventh Day Adventist (1). The current Senate Chaplain is Rear Admiral Barry C. Black (Ret.), a Seventh Day Adventist, who has served since 2003. You can read his biography here. For a complete list of all Senate chaplains who have served, visit the Senate’s Art and History website.

Regardless of denomination, it is expected that clergy selected to serve as chaplain will do so not as a denominational advocate, but as an individual pastor sensitive to diverse religious backgrounds among Members of Congress. While the official chaplains have all been Christians, guest chaplains (who are invited about twice a month), have come from other faiths, e.g. Judaism, Islam, Native American religions, and others.

The chaplains today have a variety of duties. They open each legislative session with prayer. They coordinate the candidates for "guest" chaplains (who are nominated by Members of Congress) and host them. They provide spiritual counsel to Members and their families. They conduct Bible studies for Members. They make hospital visits, and perform weddings and funerals for Members of Congress. The Senate chaplain, with a smaller "parish", has also extended some of these services to congressional staff. The House chaplain, with a much larger "congregation," mostly limits his availability to Members.

Except for a brief period in the 1850's, both the House and Senate have chosen to appoint a chaplain ever since the Continental Congress appointed the first -- an Episcopal priest from Philadelphia (Jacob Duche) to serve as chaplain from 1774-1776. The first House chaplain was appointed in 1789, William Lynn, a Presbyterian from Philadelphia. The first Senate chaplain was Samuel Provoost, an Episcopalian from New York, also appointed in 1789.

The six-year hiatus without appointed chaplains lasted from 1855-1861. The House decided to suspend the practice because it had become fraught with problems of competition among the political patrons of various clergy candidates, with each Member advocating his favorite pastor for the post. Instead, the House asked local clergy residing in Washington, D.C. to take turns leading the House in prayer. The Senate did the same for only two years, 1857-1859. Both chambers gave up on this solution because it became too difficult to rely on local volunteers who were not always available and who did not have the time to get to know their special "flock."

For more information on the House and Senate Chaplains, ask any one of your Members of Congress to send you [specify by post or email] a copy of a report issued by the Congressional Research Service, “House and Senate Chaplains,” by Mildred Amer, April 25, 2008.