House and Senate Chaplains

House and Senate Chaplains
Mildred Amer
Specialist in American Government
Government and Finance Division
The official clergy of Congress are the two chaplains — one in the House, the other
in the Senate. They are among the elected officers of their respective houses. At the
beginning of each Congress, the House chaplain is elected for a two-year term. The
Senate chaplain does not have to be reelected at the beginning of a new Congress. This
report is one of a series on the legislative process. For more information on the legislative
process, please see [].
Chaplains are chosen by each chamber as individuals and not as representatives of
any religious body or denominational entity. The leadership of both houses has the
ultimate authority to recommend candidates for the chaplaincy, although other interested
Members are usually part of the selection process. There have been 62 Senate chaplains
and 59 House chaplains. All but two have been Protestant. There have, however, been
men and women “guest” chaplains from other faiths, including the Jewish and Islamic.
On June 27, 2003, the Senate elected its first black and first Seventh-day Adventist
chaplain. Dr. Barry C. Black, a rear admiral and former chief of chaplains for the Navy,
was selected by Majority Leader Bill Frist. His name was among those recommended by
a bipartisan search committee of five Senators led by Senator John Kyl. Dr. Black
replaced Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, a Presbyterian minister, who had resigned in March 2003.
See []
for a list of all Senate chaplains.
On March 23, 2000, the Speaker of the House appointed the first Roman Catholic
House chaplain, Father Daniel P. Coughlin, to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation
of Rev. James Ford, who had served as House chaplain since January 1979. Rev. Charles
C. Pise, the only Catholic priest to be elected Senate chaplain, served for one year (1833).
In May 1999 after Rev. Ford announced his intention to retire, the then-House
Speaker Dennis Hastert and the then-House Democratic leader Richard Gephart appointed
an 18-member bipartisan search committee, chaired by Representatives Tom Bliley (R-
VA) and Earl Pomeroy (D-ND), to recommend three finalists for House chaplain.1 In
November 1999, Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister, was chosen by the House

1 Rev. Ogilvie was selected after a search by a bipartisan committee of six Senators appointed by
the then-Senate majority leader Robert Dole, as was Rev. Ford, who was chosen after a search
by a smaller committee appointed by then-Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill.

leadership (the speaker, and majority and minority leaders). However, he withdrew his
name from consideration, and Speaker Hastert appointed Father Coughlin under his
authority to appoint a temporary replacement officer in the middle of a Congress (2
U.S.C., §75a-1). Father Coughlin has since been elected at the beginning of each
subsequent Congress. See [
chaplains.html] for a list of all House chaplains.
The Senate chaplain earns $146,600 a year, and the House chaplain earns $167,800
a year. Both work full time, although many previous chaplains maintained pulpits at local
churches while serving Congress. The budgets for their office operations and staff are
included in the annual legislative branch appropriations.
The chaplains perform ceremonial, symbolic, and pastoral duties. They open the
daily sessions in the chambers of each house with a prayer; serve as spiritual counselors
to Members, their families, and staff; conduct Bible studies, discussion sessions, and
prayer meetings for Members and staff; and often officiate at the weddings and funerals
of Members. They also coordinate the “guest chaplains” who are frequently invited by
Members to deliver the daily invocation.
The custom of opening legislative sessions with a prayer began in the Continental
Congress, which elected Jacob Duche, Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia,
to serve as its chaplain from 1774 to 1776. Except for a brief period (described below),
both chambers have elected a chaplain since the First Congress in 1789. The House chose
William Lynn, a Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia, as its first chaplain, and the
Senate picked Samuel Provoost, Episcopal bishop from New York. Each received a
salary of $500. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the chaplains were not considered
officers of Congress. They were elected for a single session instead of an entire Congress
and worked alternately in each house, changing weekly.
When Congress moved to Washington in 1800, churches were so few that the
chaplains even took turns conducting Sunday services in the House chamber — now part
of Statuary Hall. Visiting clergy also participated in these services, which were open to
the public. During the early years of Congress, the chaplains’ duties centered primarily
on the preparation and delivery of convening prayers, and they served as pastors of
churches in the Washington area in addition to their congressional duties. As their duties
to Congress increased, the chaplains resigned their pastorates after their election to devote
more time to the position of chaplain; an office and staff were also provided.
The period without chaplains lasted from 1857 to 1859, when questions were raised
by citizens who objected to the employment of chaplains in Congress and the military as
a breach of the separation of church and state. Some critics also alleged that the
appointments of chaplains had become too politicized. Accordingly, local clergy
voluntarily served as chaplains. However, the difficulty in obtaining volunteer chaplains
resulted in the return to the practice of selecting official House and Senate chaplains.
In late 1994, prior to the convening of the 104th Congress, some thought was given
to having volunteers of rotating denominations fill the post of House chaplain. However,
the Republican leadership decided to maintain the system of a full-time paid chaplain.

The constitutionality of the chaplains’ prayers was upheld in 1983 by the Supreme
Court (Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783) on the grounds of precedent and tradition. The
Court cited the practice going back to the Continental Congress in 1774 and noted that the
custom “is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country” from colonial
times and the founding of the republic. Further, the Court held that the use of prayer “has
become part of the fabric of our society,” coexisting with “the principles of
disestablishment and religious freedom.” Subsequently, on March 25, 2004, the U.S.
District Court for the District of Columbia, citing Marsh v. Chambers, dismissed a suit
that challenged the congressional practice of paid chaplains as well as the practice of
opening legislative sessions with prayer.