Catholic Priest Sues over Prohibition of Mass on Military Base Because of Shutdown

Catholic Priest Sues over Prohibition of Mass on Military Base Because of Shutdown

A Catholic priest has filed a lawsuit after he was barred from volunteering to celebrate Mass at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia, where he serves as chaplain.

Father Ray Leonard, who is contracted to serve as base chaplain, and Fred Naylor, his parishioner and a retired veteran, launched the lawsuit Monday in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the U.S. Department of the Navy, and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus are all named as defendants in the suit.

Since the partial government shutdown, non-active duty, contracted priests have been prohibited from celebrating Mass at military bases despite provisions in the Pay Our Military Act, which was enacted just prior to the start of the shutdown. Active duty chaplains and priests who serve the military in a civilian capacity as General Schedule (GS) employees of the DoD were brought back to work after Defense Secretary Hagel ordered all DoD personnel recalled.

An 1870 law, the Anti-Deficiency Act, prohibits individuals from providing contractual services in the event of a government shutdown. Contracted priests, however, have been told that even if they volunteer to celebrate Mass on military bases without pay, they could be subject to arrest.

On October 5th, the House of Representatives voted to call upon Secretary Hagel to allow continued religious services on military bases during the government shutdown. The resolution was introduced by Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), a U.S. Air Force chaplain and Iraq War veteran.

On Thursday, the Senate passed by unanimous consent an amended version of the House’s resolution, which was sent back to the House for further consideration.

According to the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), which represents Leonard, only Catholic services at Kings Bay have been shut down. Protestant services continue to be permitted.

“This is an astonishing attack on religious freedom by the federal government, and the latest affront towards the military since the beginning of the shutdown,” reads a statement on TMLC’s website.

A sign posted at Kings Bay states:

Due to the Government shutdown FY14 contracts are not being funded, CATHOLIC MASS will be suspended until further notice. RCIA will continue as scheduled.

Our Lady Star of the Sea conducts mass @ 0900 and 1100 Sundays in downtown Saint Mary’s.

ACTIVE DUTY Chaplains will continue to facilitate, provide, care, and advise the SUBASE community. Protestant services will continue to be held in the SUBASE Chapel Sundays @ 1030.

We apologize for the inconvenience.

-Chapel Staff

Leonard, who served Tibetan populations in China for 10 years, told the court in an affidavit:

In China, I was disallowed from performing public religious services due to the lack of religious freedom in China. 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.

On October 4th, Leonard was ordered to stop performing all of his duties as a civilian Catholic Chaplain, even on a voluntary basis. He was also reportedly told he could be arrested if he violated that order. Approximately 300 Catholic families, including Fred Naylor’s, who are normally served by Leonard at Kings Bay have been unable to attend Mass on base since the start of the shutdown.

In addition, TMLC states that Leonard was locked out of his on-base office and the chapel and denied access to the Holy Eucharist and other articles of Catholic faith.

As a result of the order, daily and weekend Mass, the sacrament of reconciliation, marriage preparation, and baptisms have been cancelled.

Kings Bay is a remote location consisting of about 16,000 acres, with 4,000 acres comprised of protected wetlands. Approximately 10,000 people live on the base.

The town of St. Mary’s is the location of the nearest Catholic church, about an eight mile journey from the base. Since many who live on the base have no cars, and sailors often are permitted only a short span of time off-base, a 16 mile walk to and from the church is not possible.

According to the TMLC, about 25 percent of the U.S. Armed Forces is Catholic and, due to a shortage of active duty Catholic priests, the DoD contracts Catholic priests to provide religious services, sacraments, and support for other religious practices for military base communities. Catholic priests serve the Archdiocese for the Military Services (AMS) under the leadership of Archbishop Timothy Broglio, J.C.D.

In response to the prohibition of priests celebrating Mass on as many as 50 military bases around the world, John Schlageter, General Counsel of the AMS said in a press release, regarding the continuation of the furlough for Catholic priests:

This sad state of affairs is contrary to our nation’s most basic principles. Military personnel enjoy, like all Americans, the First Amendment guarantee of the “Free Exercise” of their particular religious faith. That right continues to be denied for Catholics.