Updated at 4:58 p.m.
House Speaker Paul Ryan fired the House chaplain two weeks ago, sparking a slow-motion series of events that erupted on the floor Friday and now threatens a bitter religious-freedom debate in Congress in the weeks ahead.
House Democrats led by Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., forced a vote Friday to try to establish an investigative panel to look into Ryan's decision to fire the Rev. Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest who has served as House chaplain since 2011. Republicans successfully tabled the motion, but the floor fight was an indication that the circumstances surrounding the firing are a growing matter of concern on Capitol Hill.
"The speaker made the decision he believes to be in the best interest of the House, and he remains grateful for Father Conroy's many years of service," Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said in a Friday statement.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blasted the speaker in an unusually harsh statement. "His abrupt, unjust dismissal is hard to understand and impossible to support," she said. "I have expressed my forceful disagreement with this decision to the speaker."
Ryan, Pelosi and Crowley are all Catholic. Both the House and the Senate have full-time chaplains who preside over the opening sessions of each chamber and offer daily prayers when Congress is in session. The chaplain also provides counsel to the House community, and the post is confirmed at the start of each two-year Congress.
Ryan's office first announced Conroy would "step down" in an April 16 statement that received little notice at the time. "As chaplain, Father Conroy has been a great source of strength and support to our community," Ryan said on April 16. "He is deeply admired by members and staff. Father Conroy's ministry here has made a difference, and we are all very grateful to him."
The speaker said he would consult with Pelosi "in the coming weeks" on Conroy's successor.
However, in his resignation letter, Conroy noted that he was stepping down "as you have requested" and has since made clear that he had no interest in leaving Capitol Hill.
Conroy and his assistant declined to comment to NPR on his firing, but Conroy told The New York Times on Thursday that he was "unclear" as to the reasoning behind his dismissal. His comments fueled Democrats' speculation on Capitol Hill that it was over the political tone in his prayers. Conroy told the Times that Ryan said to him, "Padre, you just got to stay out of politics."
The speaker's office has not offered a detailed explanation of his decision to fire Conroy, but at a meeting with House Republicans on Friday morning, he disputed allegations that it was politically motivated. His explanation didn't assure all Republicans, either.
"To me it was an unsatisfactory answer," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., told CNN. "It is such an unprecedented action to only be taken for very, very serious issues. And the speaker said it was just because certain people said he was not complying with their request or was not giving good counsel. I never heard that from anyone. Anyone who I know who deals with him has the highest regard for him."
Democrat Gerry Connolly of Virginia told NPR, "Why wouldn't you counsel him to do better if there was a problem? Why wouldn't you give him to the end of this Congress which is the end of this year so that he can gracefully exit?"
The murkiness has led to allegations from Democrats, which Ryan has further denied, that the decision involved in part a November prayer on the House floor in which Conroy appeared to criticize the GOP's tax cut legislation and included the line: "May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans."
There are also reports that some lawmakers were dissatisfied with his service, but no one has stepped forward to criticize Conroy. Pelosi disputed that members on her side of the aisle ever voiced opposition to the chaplain. "During Father Conroy's entire service, I've never received a complaint from our members about him pastoring to the needs of the House," she said Friday.
Congress adjourned Friday for a weeklong recess. There is no firm timetable on finding Conroy's replacement. He will remain in the job until late May and continues to offer the opening prayer each day when the House goes into session. "As the members of this people's House deliberate these days, give them the wisdom and magnanimity to lay aside what might divide us as a people to forge a secure future for our country," he prayed Friday morning.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A big fight has broken out in the House of Representatives over a position that isn't normally controversial. Speaker Paul Ryan this month essentially fired the House chaplain, Father Patrick Conroy. The speaker denies that politics played any role in his request for Conroy's resignation. But some House members are not convinced. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: When Father Conroy earlier this month announced he was stepping down as House chaplain, most members assumed it was his own decision. But news organizations then got hold of Conroy's letter to Speaker Ryan announcing his resignation, quote, "as you have requested." For the House speaker to fire the House chaplain is without precedent, at least in modern times. Democrat Gerry Connolly of Virginia said several members took it personally.
GERRY CONNOLLY: You've got to remember that the House chaplain ministers to the whole House. And so for seven years, he has been comforting the sick, counseling people maybe who have family sorrow or a problem or maybe are depressed, just stressed themselves as a pastor would do.
GJELTEN: An aide to Speaker Ryan says some House members have raised concerns about Conroy's pastoral care. That was hard to square with a statement Ryan issued last week praising Conroy as, quote, "a great source of strength and support to our community."
As a Jesuit priest, Conroy comes from a faith tradition that emphasizes social justice. At the opening of a House session last November, as lawmakers considered a new tax bill, Conroy prayed that members of Congress keep in mind that institutions in America have allowed some to achieve great success while others continue to struggle.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PATRICK CONROY: May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws but benefits balanced and shared by all.
GJELTEN: Conroy's assistant in the House told NPR he is not commenting, but the chaplain was quoted today in The New York Times saying that Speaker Ryan had told him, quote, "Padre, you just got to stay out of politics." Conroy has since spoken to House members about his firing, including Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina.
WALTER JONES: Oh, yeah, I spoke to him yesterday on the floor.
GJELTEN: And what did he tell you?
JONES: Well, he told me - he said he thought it was his prayer that he mentioned the tax bill.
GJELTEN: If the chaplain's prayer indeed led to his firing, Jones says it's absolutely unacceptable.
JONES: No preacher or priest should feel that someone at the highest level, meaning speaker of the House, is going to determine whether that prayer was right or wrong because this was given as he felt God put in his heart.
GJELTEN: In a statement late today, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Father Conroy's dismissal unjust, hard to understand and impossible to support. Speaker Ryan's aide insists the chaplain's removal was not due to any specific prayer.
Ryan has so far asked at least three members of Congress to advise on a replacement for Conroy as chaplain. One of the three, Republican Mark Walker of North Carolina, told reporters yesterday that he would be looking for somebody, quote, "who has a little age, that has adult children." That would presumably rule out another Catholic priest. Walker today apologized for that statement. In an interview with "The National Journal" published in January, Conroy said there are probably some members of Congress who are less than comfortable with my being Catholic. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.