- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2000

Any Catholic worth his salt could tell you that the Roman collar is no fashion statement. But these days Democrats have turned the collar into a fleeting fancy, an election tool devoid of soul. When House Speaker Dennis Hastert appointed Catholic Rev. Daniel Coughlin as House chaplain last week, he really had no other choice but to appoint a Catholic. Democrats had deemed Mr. Hastert's original choice for the job, the Rev. Charles Wright, unacceptable. Chosen as one of three finalists for the job by a bipartisan House committee, Mr. Wright had to endure the outrageous fortune of being, of all things, a Presbyterian. House Democrats whined because their favorite candidate Rev. Tim O'Brien, a Catholic wasn't picked by the speaker from the three-person pool of finalists. They accused Republicans of anti-Catholicism without a single iota of proof. If Republican anti-Catholic sentiment ran so high, why on earth did the Rev. Tim O'Brien the Catholic preference of the Democrats make the last round, one of three finalists chosen out of nearly 50 applicants? Mr. Hastert chose a widely supported candidate in Mr. Wright, and indeed he had every right to fume.

"I do not easily take in stride carelessly tossed accusations of bigotry," Mr. Hastert told the silent House upon his selection of Father Coughlin. And nor should he take those accusations easily. The Democratic rumor-mongers led by Rep. Anna Eshoo of California ought to apologize. They have brought the House down to the level of a second-rate student council. The Catholic chaplain has become a mere token.

What is especially bad is that all this serves to denigrate Father Coughlin's wonderful credentials. A well-respected clergyman from the speaker's home state, he is an outstanding candidate for the job. But it became clear in recent weeks that Mr. Wright might not pass a House vote, and the speaker had no other choice than to find the best available Catholic. Mr. Wright became the casualty of the ultimate commingling of church and state, victimized by a rogue collection of Democrats and hung out to dry because of his religious affiliation. Minority Leader Richard Gephardt could have publicly denounced Reps. Eshoo and John Dingell for their baseless commentary. Instead, he chose a mealy-mouthed route.

"I never said or ever believed there was bias of any kind in the making of this selection. I never said that," Mr. Gephardt said. Of course. Mr. Gephardt said barely anything at all, an absentee leader allowing his charges to wreck the House. We should expect better.

Mr. Hastert, on the other hand, deserves praise for ending this sad affair with his fait accompli. Accused in the past for weak leadership, Mr. Hastert has taken the hard line appropriately. No chaplain debate should ever have to come down to this. And if the next chaplain appointment devolves similarly, perhaps we'd all be better off with no debate or, indeed, no chaplain at all.

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