May 19, 2018
Barring further developments (and let's hope that there aren't any), the kerfuffle over the Catholic chaplain of the House of Representatives seems to be over. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan asked for the resignation of Father Patrick Conroy, S.J., Father Conroy resigned, then withdrew his resignation, and Ryan withdrew his request. May everyone involved in this flap now live happily ever after. Personally, I'm glad to leave it at that.
But the incident did serve one useful purpose by inviting attention to the constitutional footing of legislative chaplaincies, considered in light of the First Amendment's ban on an "establishment" of religion. And that's something well worth looking at for what it can tell us about the disputes over church-state relations that continue to plague the nation.
Go back, then, to 1983 and a Supreme Court decision in a case called Marsh v. Chambers.
The case arose when a Nebraska state senator named Ernie Chambers brought suit in federal court against the practice of opening sessions of the state legislature with a prayer by a chaplain paid by the state. Chambers found this a violation of the First Amendment's no-establishment clause. The district court upheld the prayer but not the payment to the chaplain. The U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against both things. The case then went to the Supreme Court.