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A big fight has broken out in the House of Representatives over a position that isn't normally controversial. Speaker Paul Ryan this month essentially fired the House chaplain, Father Patrick Conroy. The speaker denies that politics played any role in his request for Conroy's resignation. But some House members are not convinced. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: When Father Conroy earlier this month announced he was stepping down as House chaplain, most members assumed it was his own decision. But news organizations then got hold of Conroy's letter to Speaker Ryan announcing his resignation, quote, "as you have requested." For the House speaker to fire the House chaplain is without precedent, at least in modern times. Democrat Gerry Connolly of Virginia said several members took it personally.
GERRY CONNOLLY: You've got to remember that the House chaplain ministers to the whole House. And so for seven years, he has been comforting the sick, counseling people maybe who have family sorrow or a problem or maybe are depressed, just stressed themselves as a pastor would do.
GJELTEN: An aide to Speaker Ryan says some House members have raised concerns about Conroy's pastoral care. That was hard to square with a statement Ryan issued last week praising Conroy as, quote, "a great source of strength and support to our community."
As a Jesuit priest, Conroy comes from a faith tradition that emphasizes social justice. At the opening of a House session last November, as lawmakers considered a new tax bill, Conroy prayed that members of Congress keep in mind that institutions in America have allowed some to achieve great success while others continue to struggle.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PATRICK CONROY: May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws but benefits balanced and shared by all.
GJELTEN: Conroy's assistant in the House told NPR he is not commenting, but the chaplain was quoted today in The New York Times saying that Speaker Ryan had told him, quote, "Padre, you just got to stay out of politics." Conroy has since spoken to House members about his firing, including Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina.
WALTER JONES: Oh, yeah, I spoke to him yesterday on the floor.
GJELTEN: And what did he tell you?
JONES: Well, he told me - he said he thought it was his prayer that he mentioned the tax bill.
GJELTEN: If the chaplain's prayer indeed led to his firing, Jones says it's absolutely unacceptable.
JONES: No preacher or priest should feel that someone at the highest level, meaning speaker of the House, is going to determine whether that prayer was right or wrong because this was given as he felt God put in his heart.
GJELTEN: In a statement late today, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Father Conroy's dismissal unjust, hard to understand and impossible to support. Speaker Ryan's aide insists the chaplain's removal was not due to any specific prayer.
Ryan has so far asked at least three members of Congress to advise on a replacement for Conroy as chaplain. One of the three, Republican Mark Walker of North Carolina, told reporters yesterday that he would be looking for somebody, quote, "who has a little age, that has adult children." That would presumably rule out another Catholic priest. Walker today apologized for that statement. In an interview with "The National Journal" published in January, Conroy said there are probably some members of Congress who are less than comfortable with my being Catholic. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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