WASHINGTON (CNS) — While a bill asking the U.S. defense secretary to address the situation worked its way through Congress, contracted military chaplains were being prevented from offering Catholic religious services during the government shutdown, argued a lawsuit filed in District Court in Washington Oct. 14.
The Thomas More Law Center, a public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., sent a press release announcing that it had filed suit against the federal government, arguing that Father Ray Leonard was being prevented from even voluntarily serving as a chaplain at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia.
Father Leonard is a civilian who has a contract to serve as a chaplain at Kings Bay, said the press release. It said the priest has been prohibited from even volunteering to celebrate Mass at the base chapel without pay and that he “was told that if he violated that order he could be subject to arrest.”
The House and Senate have both passed versions of a resolution that, as the Congressional Research Service summarized it, “expresses hope that the secretary of defense is able to determine that contractor clergy provide necessary support to military personnel, and would therefore be covered under the appropriations made available under the Pay Our Military Act.”
Because of slight differences in the versions passed by the House and Senate, the Senate’s resolution was returned to the House for action Oct. 11.
An Oct. 12 statement from John Schlageter, general counsel of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, said that because contracted chaplains were part of the workforce furloughed because of the impasse over a continuing resolution to keep the federal government funded, Catholics at about 50 military installations around the world would not be able to attend Mass on-site for a second week in a row.
Active-duty chaplains were not affected by the shutdown.
A call by Catholic News Service Oct. 14 to the chaplain’s office at Kings Bay was answered with a recorded message that gave the time of Protestant services on Sundays, but made no mention of Mass for Catholics. The office’s web page lists Masses at 9 a.m. Sunday, 5 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, as well as a monthly first Friday evening Mass.
The lawsuit also was filed on behalf of Fred Naylor, a retired member of the military who is in the Kings Bay Catholic community.
The law firm’s press release said Father Leonard was ordered Oct. 4 to stop performing his duties as chaplain, even as a volunteer, and was locked out of his on-base office and the chapel. It said that in addition to Masses being suspended, the order meant the cancellation of scheduled confession times, marriage preparation, baptism, “as well as prevented Father Leonard from providing spiritual guidance he was called by his faith to provide.”
The Archdiocese for Military Services statement noted that it is an 1870 law, the Anti-Deficiency Act, that prohibits the provision of contractual services in the event of a government shutdown.
A press spokesperson at the law firm said the suit was filed despite the Columbus Day holiday via an electronic filing system. The federal courts have thus far remained open during the government shutdown.