ST. MARYS, Ga. — On Oct. 1, Father Ray Leonard was slated to begin providing Catholic services at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia.
But after the government shutdown, the Catholic priest, who had contracted with the U.S. Department of Defense to celebrate Mass and provide sacramental preparation for the 300 Catholic families on the base, was told he would not be able to provide such services — not even as a volunteer.
Father Leonard contacted the Thomas More Law Center, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based public interest group. And on Oct. 14, legal counsel Erin Mersino filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., that challenged the policy, which was based on laws governing the funding of civilian contracts, including priests like Father Leonard, who are hired to bolster the ranks of Catholic military chaplains.
One day after the lawsuit was filed, three U.S. Department of Justice attorneys contacted the Thomas More Law Center to alert Mersino that Father Leonard would be able to return to the base to perform Catholic services. Subsequently, the Navy chain of command confirmed the new guidance.
In a statement released after the government reversed its policy, Richard Thompson, the president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, expressed alarm that contract priests like Father Leonard had been barred from serving Catholics on military bases and described the policy as a “blatant attack on religious liberty.”
“I would never have imagined that our government would ever bar Catholic priests from saying Mass under threat of arrest and prevent Catholics from participating in their religious exercises,” said Thompson.
“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.”
The Archdiocese for the Military Services has also expressed alarm about the furloughing of contract priests, who are needed to complement the short supply of active-duty Catholic military chaplains.
Taylor Henry, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said it would have no formal response to the lawsuit. But he told the Register that the Air Force had contacted the archdiocese to confirm that the contract priests would be allowed to return to Air Force bases to celebrate Mass and fulfill other duties.
In the wake of the government shutdown, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that many civilian personnel provided “essential” services and thus would not be sent home. However, contract priests were not deemed “essential.”
John Schlageter, the general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, spoke with the Register earlier this month about the developing situation and expressed frustration that while the military was looking for “alternative” sources of funding to maintain other programs on bases, like sporting events, there appeared to be less concern about securing Sunday Mass services.
During an Oct. 16 interview, Schlageter told the Register that the Air Force had just notified his office that furloughed contract priests could return to their duties, though it was not clear whether they would be paid.The new guidance designated all Air Force "contract clergy as 'excepted' for the purpose of the current shutdown."
Further, Schlageter said that, on Oct. 10, he had been told that the Department of the Navy had also changed its policy that prevented priests with contracts that began on Oct. 1 from performing their duties. However, the AMS still has not received any formal notice to that effect, and many priests were barred from celebrating Mass on naval bases on Oct. 12. The AMS has not received any new guidance from the Army.
Schlageter noted that the House and Senate had approved resolutions calling for the government to allow the contract priests to return to military bases during the shutdown, but, initially, no reprieve was forthcoming.
"Until the Air Force instruction came out, it seemed that no single person could make the decision" to change the policy, he said.
Since the government shutdown went into effect, some military bases, like Quantico and Langley, were able to provide priests for Sunday Mass. But other bases, like Georgia’s Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, did without.
Thus, on Oct. 4, the Department of Defense contacted Father Leonard to confirm that he would be furloughed.
This week, the Thomas More Law Center reported that Father Leonard had been “threatened with arrest for visiting the chapel where the Holy Eucharist was stored or celebrating holy Mass on base on a voluntary basis.”
Until Oct. 15, a sign posted on the door of the submarine base chapel announced the suspension of Mass.
“Due to the government shutdown, FY14 contracts are not being funded. Catholic Mass will be suspended until further notice. RCIA will continue as scheduled,” read the sign posted on the chapel doors.
The sign further noted that Catholic Mass was available at a local parish, that active-duty military chaplains would still be working and that Protestant services would continue as planned. There is a greater supply of active-duty Protestant military chaplains, so the bases are less dependent on contract ministers for non-Catholic Christians.
Father Leonard and military veteran Fred Naylor are identified as plaintiffs in a legal challenge against Secretary of Defense Hagel, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy.
The lawsuit filed by the Thomas More Law Center seeks “relief from the clear and purposeful deprivation of their religious freedom, free association and free-speech rights.”
The lawsuit challenges “regulations under the ‘Anti-Deficiency Act’ and the ‘Pay Our Military Act’ [that] have the effect of threatening plaintiff Father Ray Leonard with the force of law if he administers Catholic Mass and services on the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.”
It added, “These regulations deprive military veteran plaintiff Fred Naylor of Catholic religious services, classes, blessings and meetings on the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.”
The lawsuit also asked the court to issue 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.”
Erin Mersino of the Thomas More Law Center told the Register that the lawsuit “has not been dropped because the same laws remain on the books. We are challenging those laws and want to protect plaintiffs and others from this happening again.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.