Among the unfinished pieces of business in Congress is the selection of a new chaplain for the House of Representatives. That should be a noncontroversial task, with a benevolent purpose. Instead it has become a political debate about religion and government.
Traditionally, the Speaker of the House has picked the chaplain. Speaker Dennis Hastert, however, chose a more democratic process. Last year he appointed a committee of 18 House members to recommend candidates to the leadership - himself plus the majority and minority leaders.
Alas, the committee's top vote-getter, the Rev. Timothy O'Brien, a Catholic priest, was not the leadership's choice. Mr. Hastert and Republican majority leader Dick Armey opted for a Presbyterian minister who was among the committee's top three recommendations.
Another year, this might have blown over. Not this year, with the controversy springing from George W. Bush's visit to Bob Jones University still fresh in mind.
Catholic House members suspected prejudice in the chaplain selection. The Speaker says he simply chose the man he thought was best for the job.
And what about the job? Often the chaplain, who is paid $132,100 a year, delivers an opening prayer to a nearly empty House. The current furor has led some observers, who argue for church-state separation, to say that it's time to do away with the chaplaincy.
But chaplains are a 200-year tradition in Congress. A 1983 Supreme Court ruling invoked that tradition to uphold chaplains in state legislatures. Ideally, chaplains lend a note of prayer and calm to the legislative arena, as well as counsel individual members.
Still, it wouldn't hurt to alter the post, moving from a full-time job to a rotating duty that might better reflect the nation's diversity of religions. Such rotation would better fit the Constitution's "establishment clause."
Above all, House members should realize they set a bad example for resolving the nation's many church-state issues by turning the choice of a chaplain into a partisan issue.
They should ease tempers and sensitivities and show the public that this issue, which shouldn't be an issue at all, can be amicably resolved.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society