The Chaplain of the United States Senate opens each session of the United States Senate with a prayer, and provides and coordinates religious programs and pastoral care support for Senators, their staffs, and their families. The Chaplain is appointed by a majority vote of the members of the Senate on a resolution nominating an individual for the position. The three most recent nominations have been submitted based on a bipartisan search committee although that procedure is not required.
Chaplains are elected as individuals and not as representatives of any religious community, body, or organization. As of 2014, all Senate Chaplains have been Christian but can be members of any religion or faith group. Guest Chaplains, recommended by Senators to deliver the session’s opening prayer in place of the Senate Chaplain, have represented “all the world’s major religious faiths.”
The current Chaplain, Barry C. Black, a retired Navy Rear Admiral and former Chief of Navy Chaplains, is the first African-American and the first Seventh-day Adventist to hold the position.
The Chaplain of the United States Senate is chosen to “perform ceremonial, symbolic, and pastoral duties.” These responsibilities include opening Senate sessions with a prayer or coordinating the delivery of the prayer by guest chaplains recommended by members of the Senate. The Chaplain’s prayer is referred to as “one of the Senate’s most enduring traditions” in the official Senate pamphlet “Traditions of the U.S. Senate.”
The Senate Chaplain is also responsible for “hosting” Guest Chaplains on the day they deliver prayers. According to the U.S. Senate website, these guest chaplains have represented “all the world’s major religious faiths,” and their participation is a sign that the Senate is sensitive to the “increasing religious diversity of the nation.”
According to Robert C. Byrd in his book “The Senate:1789-1989”, has written that “The Duties that chaplains perform…are not all written down, but they are numerous and have evolved over the centuries.” His description continues:
“The Chaplain visits senators when they go to the hospital, represents the Senate in appearances before church groups across the nation, and is host to visiting religious figures who come to the Capitol. On occasion, chaplains of the Senate have led groups of saffron-robed Tibetan monks on tours of the building.”
The Chaplain also provides pastoral care for the Senators, their staffs, and their families, and provides or oversees religious programs such as Bible study, reflection groups, and the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast. The Chaplain also often presides over religious ceremonies such as funerals and memorial services for current or past members and participates, offering delivering the invocation or benediction, at many official U.S. ceremonies, including White House events. For example, Chaplain Barry Black delivered the keynote address at an “inaugural prayer breakfast” and the benediction at an “inaugural luncheon” for President Barack Obama. In a January 2011 post on “On Watch in Washington,” the Chaplain of the Senate as well as the Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives were included as part of “Obama’s Spiritual Cabinet.”
Along with the House Chaplain, the Senate Chaplain is responsible for overseeing the Capitol Prayer Room, located near the Capitol Rotunda. Dedicated in 1955, there are no worship services held in the room, nor is it normally open to the public. Instead, as described by Sam Rayburn during the room’s dedication, it is a place for members “who want to be alone with their God.”
The Senate Chaplain has a staff that includes a Chief-of-Staff, Director of Communications, and Executive Assistant, and works with a volunteer liaison in each Senate office. While the annual salary for the first Senate Chaplains was $500, the salary is now set as a Level IV position in the Executive Schedule, which is $155,500.00 in 2011. The total annual budget for the office, including salaries and expenses, is $415,000 as of 2011.
Guest Chaplains have been selected to deliver occasional prayers to open Senate sessions “for many decades.” In 1948 Wilmina Rowland Smith became the first female Guest Chaplain to deliver the opening prayer, in 1992 Warith Deen Mohammed was the first Muslim, in 2007 Rajan Zed was the first Hindu, and in 2014 Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama was the first Buddhist. Senators are limited regarding the number of recommendations they can make regarding Guest Chaplains (in the House of Representatives, members are limited to one recommendation per Congress), and although there was originally no limit to the number of times per month a Guest Chaplain could deliver the prayer in the place of the Senate Chaplain, that number is now limited to two.
The inclusion of a prayer before the opening of each session of both the House and the Senate, traces its origins back to the days of the Continental Congress, and the official recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, June 28, 1787:
“I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live,
the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel . . . I therefore beg leave to move— that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate
Shortly after the Senate first convened in April 1789 in New York City, one of its “first orders of business” was to convene a committee to recommend a Chaplain, selecting the Right Reverend Samuel Provoost, Episcopal Bishop of New York. When the Senate moved to Philadelphia the next year, the Right Reverend William White, that city’s Episcopal bishop was selected. In 1800, when the Senate relocated to Washington, D.C., clergymen from various Christian denominations (“mainline Protestant denominations–usually Episcopalians or Presbyterians”) continued to be selected, delivering prayers and presiding at funerals and memorial services.
During this early period, Chaplains “typically served” for less than a year while concurrently serving in non-congressional positions. Also, early Senate and House Chaplains, although elected separately by their respected chambers, shared Congressional responsibilities by alternating service in the House and Senate on a weekly basis, also conducting Sunday worship for the Washington, D.C. community in the House Chamber on an alternating basis. Clergymen have served in the official position of Senate Chaplain for all years since the office was created except for the brief period of 1857-1859. In 1914, the Senate began adding the Chaplain’s prayer to the Congressional Record.
In 1970 New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams “reminded his colleagues of James Madison’s strong objection when the post was created in 1793”, and “noted the modern fulfillment of another of Madison’s warnings, that there would inevitably be discrimination in the appointment of such a chaplain against the (then) smaller denominations such as Catholics and Jews.” Williams pointed out “that although Catholics have for some time comprised the largest religious affiliation in both the Senate and the population as a whole, there has been only one Catholic Senate Chaplain since 1793, and not a single rabbi.” He noted “Only eight denominations have been represented in the office.” In light of this Williams put forward Senate Resolution 90 which “resulted in the Senate’s decision to appoint a new chaplain annually, rather than let the incumbent serve for life.” The appointment would also “rotate among the nation’s three major religious groups.” When asked by reporters about the question of Constitutionality raised by his citing Madison he replied “If this were tested, I would say that it could go either way. It could be declared unconstitutional. Any taxpayer could question this, but no one ever has.” He held that in places where people were isolated by acts of government, such as people in the armed services, hospitals or prisons that chaplains serving them would be Constitutional, “But, I don’t know anybody less isolated than members of Congress.” In following eras the courts would rule on the constitutionality of the chaplaincy.
The Chaplain of the United States Senate became a full-time position in the middle of the 20th century.
According to a Senate Historical Office review of the records concerning guest chaplains, it was in 1965 that James Kirkland became the first African-American to open the Senate with prayer. In 1971 Wilmina Rowland became the first woman to do so. Wallace Mohammed was the first Muslim to do so in 1992, and Rajan Zed was the first Hindu to say the opening prayer for the Senate in 2007. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama became the first Buddhist to lead the Senate in prayer, and as of 2014 was the highest religious official to do so.
Unlike the Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives, who must be elected to a two-year term at “the beginning of each Congress,” the Senate Chaplain (like other Senate officers) does not have to be reelected. Both the House and Senate Chaplains are elected as individuals, “not as representatives of any religious body or denominational entity.”
When a vacancy occurs, the Senate chooses a new Chaplain through a vote on the adoption of a resolution. According to a 2011 Congressional Research Service congressional report, “The three most recent Senate candidates for chaplain have been nominated by a bipartisan search committee that examined possible applicants. This method has not always been Senate practice and may differ from any future nomination.” Ultimately, it is the “leadership” of the Senate that can decide on what names can be put forth as nominations.
The report also notes that “The post of chaplain to the Senate has generally not been subject to party considerations.”
The question of the constitutionality of the position of the Senate Chaplain (as well as that of the House Chaplain, and at times, that of military chaplains as well), has been a subject of study and debate over the centuries. Opponents have argued that it violates the separation of church-and-state and proponents have argued, among other factors, that the fact that the same early legislators who wrote the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights, from which the position of “non-establishment” and church and state separation is derived, were the same ones who approved and appointed the chaplains.
President James Madison was an example of a leader who ultimately came to think that the positions of Senate and House Chaplains could not be constitutionally supported, although whether he always held this view (and to what extent he believed it at various times during his life) is a subject of debate. However it is clear from his “Detached Memoranda” writings during his retirement that he had come to believe the positions could not be justified:
Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress
consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?
In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation.
The establishment of the chaplainship to Congs is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected [by the majority] shut the door of worship agst the members whose creeds & consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority. To say nothing of other sects, this is the case with that of Roman Catholics & Quakers who have always had members in one or both of the Legislative branches. Could a Catholic clergyman ever hope to be appointed a Chaplain? To say that his religious principles are obnoxious or that his sect is small, is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers, or that the major sects have a right to govern the
The constitutionality question has been examined in a number of court cases. According to “House and Senate Chaplains: An Overview,” an official 2011 Crs report created by the Congressional Research Service for “Members and Committees of Congress”:
The constitutionality of legislative chaplains was upheld in 1983 by the Supreme Court (Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, related to chaplains in the Nebraska Legislature) on the grounds of
precedent and tradition. The Court cited the practice going back to the Continental Congress in 1774 and noted that the custom “is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country” from colonial times and the founding of the republic. Further
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, the Court held that the use of prayer “has become part of the fabric of our society,” coexisting with “the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.” This decision was cited in Murray v. Buchanan, which challenged the House chaplaincy, the next year. On appeal, the U.S
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. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed the complaint “for want of a substantial constitutional question.” Subsequently, on March 25, 2004, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, citing Marsh v. Chambers, dismissed a suit that challenged the congressional practice of paid chaplains
In 2000, a C-SPAN “public affairs on the web” response to the question of constitutional challenges noted that:
“In 1983, the Supreme Court upheld the practice of having an official chaplain as deeply ingrained in the history and tradition of this country. They stated the ultimate authority for the position lies in the Constitution which states that the House and Senate may each choose their officers, with no restrictions on what kind of officers may be chosen. Using that authority, both chambers have chosen to continue to elect an officer to act as Chaplain.”
In addition to court cases, controversy regarding the Chaplain’s position included a number of petitions to abolish both the Senate and House Chaplains that were submitted as early as the 1850s, for reasons including claims that the positions represented a violation of the separation of church and state and that the choice of chaplains had become too politicized. From 1855-1861, the election of Chaplains for the House and from 1857-1859, the election of Chaplains for the Senate were suspended, with local clergy invited to serve on a voluntary basis, instead. However, as a result of “the difficulty in obtaining volunteer chaplains” and the opportunity for volunteer chaplains to get to know “their flock,” Congress returned to the practice of selecting official Chaplains for both the House and the Senate.
There have also been occasions when actions or decisions of individuals serving in the position have created controversy. For example, in 2007 Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black canceled his scheduled appearance at the “Evangelical conference” “Reclaiming America for Christ.” According to news reports, “Black reconsidered his appearance after “Americans United for Separation of Church and State” objected. Black announced he had reconsidered his participation because it would not be appropriate considering the Senate Chaplain’s “historic tradition of being nonpolitical, nonpartisan, nonsectarian.” Black said that he had received a “very generic invitation” to speak, and felt that the information about the event had been “incomplete.”
In 1984, Dr. Paul Kurtz, “a professor of philosophy and advocate of secular humanism,” sued the government in a case that reached the United States Supreme Court for the right to offer comments in place of the prayer that would normally be delivered by the Senate Chaplain or Guest Chaplain. The Court denied his suit on the grounds that no individual has the “right” to address Congress, and that the delivery of the prayer, coordinated by the Senate Chaplain, was governed by policies that dealt with “prayers” (not “remarks”) which Kurtz did not seem prepared to offer.
In 2007, the prayer delivered by Rajan Zed, the first Hindu Guest Chaplain was briefly interrupted by protestors described by news reports as members of the Christian Right. Activists had organized supporters to lobby Congress to stop the delivery of the prayer and failing that action to interrupt the prayer itself. The protestors were removed by the United States Capitol Police, charged with disrupting Congress, and barred from the Capitol and its grounds for twelve months.
The current Chaplain, the 62nd Chaplain of the United States Senate, Barry C. Black, is the first African-American and the first Seventh-day Adventist to serve in the position. He previously served as Chief of Chaplains of the United States Navy, holding the rank of Rear Admiral. Although some news reports note that Black is the “first military chaplain” to serve as Senate Chaplain, the Rev. Edward L. R. Elson, the 59th Chaplain of the United States Senate, served as an Army chaplain during World War II.
The website for the U.S. Senate includes the following list of past and present Senate Chaplains:
The U.S. Senate website focusing on the history of Senate Chaplains includes the following information on the religious backgrounds of past and current Senate Chaplains: