WASHINGTON (AP)--To former House Speaker Tip O'Neill he was the Irish monsignor. And some Jews in Congress call him rabbi.

``I guess it's because I'm the closest guy around,'' says Lutheran Rev. James David Ford, the retiring chaplain of the House of Representatives, looking particularly sagelike in a new gray beard as he walks the Capitol halls.

A passing congressman asks him to consider keeping his job of 21 years--if only to end the controversy surrounding the selection of Ford's successor.

Overriding a bipartisan committee's choice of a Catholic priest as chaplain, the House leadership appointed the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister, continuing an unbroken tradition of Protestant chaplains since the House was established.

The decision has prompted questions about Congress' attitude toward pluralism and whether one religious figure can meet the spiritual needs of 435 members. Old questions have resurfaced about whether the chaplaincy should exist at all.

For 21 years, Ford, 68, rarely talked about his job. He's in the business of keeping secrets, and he jokes that if he wrote a book about those secrets he could afford not just to retire to Bermuda, but to buy Bermuda. Retirement affords him more freedom to reflect on his life in ``the temple of compromise.''

Ford and Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie are most visible when they open daily sessions with prayer. But Ford says he does his real work one-on-one on the House floor. He whispers in corners with Republicans and Democrats. ``And if the talk gets serious they come to my office.''

Its out-of-the-way location--security guards had trouble directing a reporter to it amid the maze of hallways in the Capitol basement--is comforting to members who don't want to be seen seeking clergy counsel.

Inside, a picture of the First Continental Congress reciting its first prayer hangs near a television tuned to CNN. Boat models line Ford's mantelpiece, including a replica of the 31-foot craft he sailed from Plymouth, England, to West Point, N.Y., in 1976.

No crosses adorn the walls, but a clerical collar adorns the man who began his career in a rural church in Ivanhoe, Minn. (pop. 719), where he had to unplug the organ to turn on the Christmas lights. In 1965, he became chaplain of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he stayed for 18 years, sometimes burying young men at whose marriages he had officiated.

Today, he hears the frustrations of new members of Congress who miss the influence they had back home, and old members who worry about their marriages. When gunmen opened fire in the Capitol in 1998, Ford comforted the family of a police officer as he lay mortally wounded.

Most of his visitors, he says, aren't thinking about religion.

``People aren't asking about the `teleological suspension of the ethical,' '' he says smiling, a reference to the philosophical proposition that an ethic may, in rare circumstances, be violated for a higher purpose.

``They ask me about their daily lives and what meaning there is.''

Mostly, he says, he talks about faith, hope and love. ``Faith,'' he says, ``is about believing that life has meaning.''

The theme pervades his prayers. When Congress was debating whether to authorize President George Bush to go to war in the Persian Gulf, Ford prayed for judgment and wisdom. But, in general, whether the topic is racial justice or feeding the hungry, ``I don't pray by the headlines. I try to write timeless prayers.''

Ford would not discuss the controversy surrounding his successor.

Tensions began after an 18-member bipartisan committee reviewed almost 50 applicants. Committee members selected the Rev. Timothy O'Brien, a Catholic priest, as their first choice.

Speaker Dennis Hastert and Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, the House majority leader, chose Wright instead.

Democrats protested, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who is Catholic and served on the committee, said she detected bias against O'Brien, although House leaders deny it.

Georgetown University law professor Robert Drinan, a Catholic priest who served in Congress, doesn't see anti-Catholic sentiment. ``But for every chaplain to be white, male and Protestant is just out of whack,'' he says. (The Senate had a Catholic chaplain for a year in 1832.)

A Muslim was not invited to say the House's opening prayer until 1991, and there's never been a Buddhist or Hindu.

Discrimination against non-Protestant groups has declined dramatically in public life during the last generation, says Emory University religion and sociology professor Steven Tipton. Still, many members of Congress adhere to the Protestant model of ``seeking to be saints together within a priesthood of all believers,'' and may be suspicious of more hierarchical church models, he says.

Critics question the wisdom of employing one religious leader. ``You can't have a one-size-fits-all chaplain,'' says Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Lynn, a Protestant minister who has served as a hospital chaplain, says he has seen too many religious leaders offer views about suffering and the afterlife that contradict the beliefs of people they are counseling.

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., who is Jewish, says it doesn't have to be so.

``We're not dealing with narrow sectarian theological debates,'' says Lantos. ``People want to talk to Jim when their son is killed in an auto accident. It doesn't matter if he's a Lutheran minister, a priest or a rabbi.''

Lynn challenges the constitutionality of the chaplaincy. ``As a matter of fundamental principle,'' he says, ``taxpayers should not be supporting a person whose job is at its very core religious.'' The House chaplain is paid $138,000 a year.

In the ``Detached Memoranda,'' James Madison wrote that employing chaplains was ``a palpable violation of equal rights as well as constitutional principles.'' He doubted that a Catholic or other minority religious leader would ever be chosen for the job.

Ford argues that no one is forced to attend his prayers and the office does not advance one religion. ``This is not a theological place,'' he says, surveying of his sanctuary of two decades. ``This office says, `Life has meaning. Congress has meaning. Let's talk about it.'''

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