The House of Representatives managed with one unanimous vote yesterday to get itself on record in favor of piety and against judicial intrusion into the way it handles its own affairs.
The House, by a vote of 388 to 0, reaffirmed its right to employ a full-time chaplain to open its sessions with prayer and to pay him more than $52,000 a year. That practice is now under attack by atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who has filed suit challenging Congress' right to use tax monies to pay the House and Senate chaplains.
"This is beyond any court's right of interference," said House Majority Whip Thomas Foley (D-Wash.), who introduced the House resolution sponsored by leadership on both sides of the aisle. "It is an unbroken precedent. For over 200 years the House has exercised this right."
But O'Hair, the founder of a Texas atheist group, two years ago challenged that tradition in court, arguing that the use of federal funds to pay the chaplains violated a taxpayer's right to "freedom from religion."
"If Congress wants to pray, let them pray," O'Hair said in a telephone interview yesterday from the Austin headquarters of her American Atheists Center. "But if they want these chaplains to mutter incantations, let them pay for it themselves."
A U.S. District Court judge in Washington dismissed the suit after lawyers for Congress successfully argued that the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers precluded the judicial branch from interfering with the internal workings of the legislative branch.
But on March 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit. A three-judge panel ruled that although the Constitution provides that Congress may choose officers without interference from other branches of government, this does not preclude the courts from deciding constitutional questions that may arise from those actions. The panel, in a 2-to-1 decision, sent the case back to be argued in the lower court.
But yesterday, the House sent the court its own message.
"It's just not the court's business," said Foley after the vote on the resolution.
Even House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-Ill.), who thinks that the House chaplain's salary is "to be charitable, well, just a bit much," joined in supporting the resolution.
For their part, the House preacher, the Rev. James David Ford, and the Senate chaplain, the Rev. Richard C. Halverson, are not commenting on this secular battle.
Ford will talk only generally of his religious duties, which include opening House sessions with prayer, officiating at numerous government and community ceremonies, conducting weddings and counseling troubled sheep in his congressional flock.
But then Ford has others who are much more vocal in fighting the battle for him. "If there be a God who hears prayer," Michel asserted yesterday, invoking the words of a 126-year-old House report on the chaplain, "we submit there never was a body who needed it so much."