Religious trench warfare has broken out amid charges of anti-Catholic bigotry in choosing a new chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the past, the dominant party's leader simply made the selection. This time, the majority Republicans convened a search committee with nine Democrats and nine Republicans. That committee recommended three finalists.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri then chose among the three finalists.

"At the end of the whole process we all shook hands," says Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), a member of the committee. "There was a tremendous camaraderie." But the good will did not last long.

Hastert announced the choice of Charles Parker Wright, a Presbyterian and a pastor of churches for 25 years.

Some Democrats believe anti-Catholic bigotry influenced the selection (CT, Feb. 7, 2000, p. 24).

The Democrats, the Republicans say, are trying to peel away some of the GOP's Catholic support, which might make a difference in several key House races this fall.

Democrats say that Catholic priest Timothy O'Brien had received the most votes, 14, and should have been chosen. Wright received 9.5 votes.

Republicans were incensed that the Democrats released the vote tallies. They claimed that the votes were never meant to be made public and made little sense as a final criterion. Each representative had checked off three candidates, with no final runoff vote.

"We talked about whether to make it public," Pitts recalls. "But we all decided not to. In fact, the vote talliers didn't tell us who got the most check marks. I didn't know."

The Democrats also say they were disturbed by anti-Catholic remarks during the interviews. O'Brien says Rep. Richard Shimkus (R-Ill.) asked if O'Brien could counsel families since he was single, and if he was of good moral character.

Aides to Shimkus vehemently deny O'Brien's account. Democrats also criticize Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) for asking if O'Brien's clerical collar might be a barrier for some representatives.

Although most Republican representatives do not dispute that their colleagues asked the questions, they say the remarks were honest and friendly, if a bit naïve.

Further, they claim that Democrats actually did not want O'Brien at first but "were behind a liberal Lutheran policy-wonk type," according to one source. When the Democrats' first choice did not make the cut, they fell behind O'Brien. A few Republicans say they voted for O'Brien—an action they now regret.

Billy Graham, who has known Wright for years through the National Prayer Breakfast, called Hastert to express concern that the selection was bogged down in partisanship. "The House Chaplain serves all the members of the House of Representatives," Graham said, "regardless of political party."

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