America's North Shore Journal

Supporting the Ninth Amendment

Defense says shutdown means “No church for you”

As a Catholic chaplain ministering to military Catholics, Chap. (Lt. Col.) Dennis Niemeier is a minority in the ranks of the armed forces.

As a Catholic chaplain ministering to military Catholics, Chap. (Lt. Col.) Dennis Niemeier is a minority in the ranks of the armed forces. Despite a serious medical condition, he still works to support the Catholic community in the Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem area by providing daily mass and weekend services at the Cantonment Chapel on Fort McPherson.

On Oct. 1, the Federal government shutdown due to the failure of Congress to pass a budget for at least five years. The effects have varied but seemingly at random. One religion has been singled out for unusual attention by the Department of Defense as part of its closures. Roman Catholics have been prevented from attending religious services, classes and other religious events on military bases worldwide.

The Archdiocese for the Military Services is responsible for the spiritual care of 1.8 million Catholics, active duty military, their families, federal employees overseas and patients in Veterans Administration hospitals. The Archdiocese states that about 25 percent of the United States military is Roman Catholic. The 275,000 men and women, and their families, are served by just 234 active duty priests.

Chaplain (Brig. Gen.) Patrick Dolan  celebrated Mass at the Fort McCoy Catholic Chapel for Soldiers from the 34th Brigade Combat Team in 2011.Tom Michele / Fort McCoy

Chaplain (Brig. Gen.) Patrick Dolan celebrated Mass at the Fort McCoy Catholic Chapel for Soldiers from the 34th Brigade Combat Team in 2011.Tom Michele / Fort McCoy

The shortage of priests serving in the armed forces has resulted in the Department of Defense having to contract for priests to provide spiritual care at many of its installations. In a statement on Oct. 3, the Archdiocese explained the shutdown situation.

With the government shutdown, many GS and contract priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide are not permitted to work – not even to volunteer. During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so.

On Oct. 5, the House of Representatives passed House Concurrent Resolution 58 which expressed the “sense of Congress regarding the need for the continued availability of religious services to members of the Armed Forces and their families during a lapse in appropriations”. On Oct. 10, the Senate amended the resolution and returned the document to the House for action. At this time, that is where the matter sits.

The Defense Department has recalled most of their civilian employees based upon their current interpretation of the Pay Our Military Act. Contract priests remain on furlough, however. The Archdiocese described the situation on Oct. 11 this way:

Active-duty Catholic Chaplains, who were never affected by the Oct. 1 shutdown, are still providing their pastoral services as usual. Other priests who serve the military in a civilian capacity as “General Schedule” (GS) employees of the Department of Defense were brought back to work this week after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a recall of all DoD personnel. Furloughed contract priests, however, remain in limbo. Under an 1870 law, the Anti-Deficiency Act, they are prohibited from providing contractual services in the event of a government shutdown.

Father Ray Leonard serves as the Catholic chaplain at Navel Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia. On Oct. 14, he joined with a congregant in suing the Department of Defense, the Navy, Defense Secretary Hagel and Navy Secretary Mabus. The suit asks that:

  • Plaintiffs seek relief from the clear and purposeful deprivation of their religious freedom, free association, and free speech rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
  • Plaintiffs seek a preliminary and permanent injunction preventing government interference with religious services by military chaplains to their congregants.
  • Plaintiffs further seek a declaratory judgment that the Anti-Deficiency Act as applied to the sermons and counseling of the United States Military Chaplains violates the Free Speech, Free Association, and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

The doors to the Kings Bay Chapel were locked on October 4, 2013, with the Holy Eucharist, Holy water, Catholic hymn books, and vessels all locked inside. Father Leonard and his parishioners, including Fred Naylor, were prohibited from entering.

Father Leonard has experience with being denied the ability to practice his faith. He spent a decade ministering in Tibet, as reported by CNS.

In China, I was disallowed from performing public religious services due to the lack of religious freedom in China,” Father Leonard said in a statement. “I never imagined that when I returned home to the United States, that I would be forbidden from practicing my religious beliefs as I am called to do, and would be forbidden from helping and serving my faith community.

UPDATE: Thomas More Center on Oct. 16:
Government Capitulates—Catholic Priest Allowed to Hold Religious Services at Naval Base Again; Chapel Doors Open to Catholic Parishioners

Late yesterday afternoon, in response to the lawsuit, three attorneys from the Department of Justice contacted TMLC attorney Erin Mersino by phone and indicated that Father Leonard could resume all of his religious duties beginning this morning, and that the Chapel would be open for all Catholic activities. These representations made by the Department of Justice attorneys were confirmed by orders to Father Leonard delivered through the Navy chain of command.

Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, said, “The actions of the Federal Government were a blatant attack on religious liberty. I would never have imagined that our Government would ever bar Catholic Priest from saying Mass under threat of arrest and prevent Catholics from participating in their religious exercises. Allowing the Chapel doors to open and Father Leonard to fulfill his priestly responsibilities does not erase the Constitutional violations that occurred. We don’t want this to occur again the next time there is a government shutdown. Our lawsuit will continue.”

No word on the other approximately 50 priests in the same situation, or their congregations.

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