(RNS) A day after House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., appointedthe first Catholic priest as House chaplain, observers from a variety ofcircles were commending his defusing of a controversy that simmered forfour months. Hastert announced the appointment of the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, vicarfor priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago, on the House floor Thursday(March 23) and then swore him in. The Rev. Charles Wright, a minister of the Presbyterian Church(USA), had been Hastert's original choice over the Rev. Tim O'Brien, aCatholic priest. Wright wrote Hastert Wednesday to "regrettably"withdraw his name from consideration, citing the partisan fight over thepost. The controversy grew after a bipartisan selection committee gave thenames of three finalists -- Wright, O'Brien and the Rev. Robert Dvorak,a leader of the Evangelical Covenant Church -- to Hastert, MajorityLeader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.Hastert chose Wright, while Gephardt and many Democrats wanted O'Brien. Coughlin, 65, will earn $138,000 in the post. He begins work Mondayand will be up for re-election at the beginning of the next session ofCongress in January. John Feehery, Hastert's spokesman, said he expectsCoughlin -- who learned of Hastert's plans to appoint him on the sameday he became chaplain -- to remain in the post "until he doesn't wantit anymore." The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which had issuedmore than a dozen statements questioning why Wright was chosen overO'Brien, was among those welcoming the decision Friday.
"We raised many questions about the treatment of Father TimothyO'Brien in the selection process and were dismayed by the way theRepublicans handled this matter," said Catholic League President WilliamDonohue. "But we have no interest in fighting this fight any longer andwe commend House Speaker Dennis Hastert for bringing this chapter to anend." Prison Fellowship Chairman Chuck Colson, a former Nixon aide who hasbeen active in building relations between evangelical Protestants andCatholics, also issued a statement congratulating Hastert. "Considering the intense and emotional rhetoric from detractors, thespeaker's decision reflects well on the House and its leaders, and helpsto defuse attempts from many quarters to divide the nation on the basisof religion," Colson wrote. Al Menendez, associate director of Americans for Religious Liberty,told Religion News Service his organization is "delighted" that theHouse has broken a long tradition of solely having Protestants in thepost, but still questions the need for a chaplain to serve members ofCongress. "The whole process needs to be examined at some time in our nationalhistory," said Menendez, whose organization supports the separation ofchurch and state. "ARL still believes that there's no constitutionalrequirement for there to be a paid House or Senate chaplaincy, but thereis a constitutional requirement that the position should be chosenwithout reference to religious bias." Hastert defended the position in his statement on the House floor,saying the chaplain's prayers offered each day that Congress is insession are "a peaceful refuge" from partisan battles
. "I think to losethe Office of the Chaplain would be a grave mistake," Hastert said.