William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal


Roughly twenty-five years ago, in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court considered the congressional chaplaincies, and concluded that they were not "an 'establishment' of religion or a step toward establishment," but instead were "simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country."' That latter phrase has been repeated hundreds of times in cases and law review articles; it suggests that the chaplaincies are uninteresting and uncontroversial and that they have been so throughout our history. The Court in Marsh looked only briefly at the history of the chaplaincies.2 A deeper look at that history reveals an American institution that is neither boring nor entirely benign. The chaplaincies have a remarkable, and a remarkably checkered, history. Sometimes, they have indeed been a source of unity for the country, as Marsh intimated. But they have also, at times, been a source of discord and dissension. Indeed, perhaps one lesson taught by the history of the chaplaincies is that they operate in the way one would expect any religious establishment to operate-when the government is empowered to act religiously, there is a natural but sometimes unenviable fight for control. The history of the chaplaincies is, at least in part, a history of that fight for control. In the last decade, this fight has reached a critical stage. While Marsh approved legislative prayer, it did so only with constitutional restrictions-restrictions which have themselves now become sources of constant litigation. In these modem battles, as was the case with Marsh itself, history plays an influential role. It is thus now more important than ever to bring to light certain episodes, some untold and some somewhat misremembered, in the history of the chaplaincies.

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