(RNS) A day after House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., appointed the first Catholic priest as House chaplain, observers from a variety of circles were commending his defusing of a controversy that simmered for four months. Hastert announced the appointment of the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, vicar for 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, a Catholic priest. Wright wrote Hastert Wednesday to "regrettably" withdraw his name from consideration, citing the partisan fight over the post. The controversy grew after a bipartisan selection committee gave the names of three finalists -- Wright, O'Brien and the Rev. Robert Dvorak, a leader of the Evangelical Covenant Church -- to Hastert, Majority Leader 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 Monday and will be up for re-election at the beginning of the next session of Congress in January. John Feehery, Hastert's spokesman, said he expects Coughlin -- who learned of Hastert's plans to appoint him on the same day he became chaplain -- to remain in the post "until he doesn't want it anymore." The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which had issued
more than a dozen statements questioning why Wright was chosen over O'Brien, was among those welcoming the decision Friday. "We raised many questions about the treatment of Father Timothy O'Brien in the selection process and were dismayed by the way the Republicans handled this matter," said Catholic League President William Donohue. "But we have no interest in fighting this fight any longer and we commend House Speaker Dennis Hastert for bringing this chapter to an end." Prison Fellowship Chairman Chuck Colson, a former Nixon aide who has been active in building relations between evangelical Protestants and Catholics, also issued a statement congratulating Hastert. "Considering the intense and emotional rhetoric from detractors, the speaker's decision reflects well on the House and its leaders, and helps to defuse attempts from many quarters to divide the nation on the basis of religion," Colson wrote. Al Menendez, associate director of Americans for Religious Liberty, told Religion News Service his organization is "delighted" that the House has broken a long tradition of solely having Protestants in the post, but still questions the need for a chaplain to serve members of Congress. "The whole process needs to be examined at some time in our national history," said Menendez, whose organization supports the separation of church and state. "ARL still believes that there's no constitutional requirement for there to be a paid House or Senate chaplaincy, but there is a constitutional requirement that the position should be chosen without 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 in session are "a peaceful refuge" from partisan battles. "I think to lose the Office of the Chaplain would be a grave mistake," Hastert said.
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