WASHINGTON — A Catholic priest has been the target of government retaliation, according to a complaint filed in federal court by his attorney, because he sued the Obama administration for the right to say Mass and minister to his military flock on base during October’s government shutdown.
The government’s alleged retaliation against Father Ray Leonard began with depriving the civilian priest of two months of his salary, even after the Department of Justice (DOJ) had allowed him to continue his ministry at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia, according to a legal brief filed by the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), a national public interest firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Father Leonard had sued the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy in October, after government officials told him on Oct. 4 that because he was a civilian priest under contract with the Navy, and not an active-duty Navy chaplain, that he could not minister to Catholics on base during the government shutdown.
The U.S. military has a shortage of Catholic chaplains within its ranks, so while the chaplains of other faiths were unaffected in their religious ministry during the government shutdown, Catholic civilian priests like Father Leonard, who are under contract with the armed forces, were told they could not perform any part of their ministry on base.
Father Leonard could have faced up to two years of jail time and a $5,000 fine had he violated the Anti-Deficiency Act by performing his duties as a priest, even on a volunteer basis. That law states, in part, that “an officer or employee of the United States government ... may not accept voluntary services for either government or employ personal services exceeding that authorized by law.”
The DOJ backed off in Father Leonard’s case Oct. 15, a day after the lawsuit was filed and started to gain national attention, allowing him to resume ministry at the Kings Bay base.
But TMLC attorney Erin Mersino, who is representing Father Leonard, noted in the amended complaint, filed Jan. 6 with the U.S. district court in Georgia, that Navy officials began to make Father Leonard’s life extremely difficult the very next day.
According to the TMLC brief, Navy officials told Father Leonard he had to sign a new contract on the basis that the old one was not “valid.”
Mersino told the Register that the new contact “was very cumbersome and much different from the original terms,” including provisions that his personal records could be searched.
On Mersino’s advice, Father Leonard refused to sign the new contract.
The TMLC amended complaint states that Navy officials threatened to find other priests to replace Father Leonard if he did not sign the new contract and that pay was withheld from the priest for two months. It adds these government actions forced the priest into “great financial hardship,” as he tried to afford housing, meals and transportation on his own dime to continue his ministry.
But had Father Leonard signed the new contract, it also could have torpedoed his lawsuit.
Mersino said the new contract included clauses that would have forced Father Leonard to recognize that he was subject to the Anti-Deficiency Act’s provisions:“Essentially, that would have called into question the legal claims he made in his complaint.”
The TMLC brief also stated that Father Leonard’s experience appears to be a case of retaliation, citing that the Archdiocese for the Military Service, USA is unaware of any other contract civilian priest having been treated in similar fashion.
The government has until March 3 to respond to TMLC’s claims. The DOJ declined to comment on the case, because it is “pending litigation.”
The Navy finally paid Father Leonard for November work on Dec. 23, after prodding by the DOJ. Following the amended complaint, arrangements have been put in place to pay the priest for the month of December and get him back on a regular payment schedule until his contract expires on Sept. 30.
As a missionary in the People’s Republic of China for the past 10 years (with much of it spent in Tibet), Father Leonard told the Register that “an enormous feature of our work there was running into the regulations and restrictions of the communist government.” He said that when he returned stateside in 2013 he was “hopeful” that, as an American, he would no longer have to face that kind of opposition.
“But in my first week in my official duties here as Catholic pastor, they were locking me out of my chapel,” he said. “So that was quite ironic, actually, and quite appalling. It’s not something that I would have ever expected.”
The priest said he enjoys the privilege of serving “our [military] men and women, who serve us by going to these inhospitable corners of the world to face off against these utmost despicable of peoples to defend us.”
“The least we can do is make sure that all of their rights in the homeland are provided for, particularly their right to their religion,” Father Leonard said. “As a Catholic priest, I feel very strongly that someone in Washington doesn’t have the power — and I don’t care who they are — to say, ‘You Catholics are not having Mass this weekend.’”
Father Leonard’s lawsuit stated that 300 Catholic families on base could no longer have daily Mass and confession, catechism classes, marriage preparation, baptism and other meetings as a result of the Navy locking him out. It added that the nearest Catholic Church to the base was a 16-mile round trip, making the journey “simply not possible” for many Catholic servicemen and women on base who had no access to cars and have “extremely limited time off” to receive the sacraments even on base.
The suit added that Congress passed the Pay Our Military Act during the October shutdown with stipulations that civilian contract personnel “whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of covered military members during the lapse of appropriations” should also be paid. However, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did not include Catholic contract priests when determining which contractors could go back to work, effectively banning 81 other Catholic priests under contract from ministering to their flocks on bases until Oct. 16, when Congress and President Obama made a deal to fund the government.
Mersino said the TMLC hopes that the lawsuit will prompt the courts to carve out an exemption to the Anti-Deficiency Act for civilian priests under contract.
“Our hope is that we never get into a situation like this again, where religious services are shut down due to government shutdown or the Anti-Deficiency Act,” she said.
Military Archdiocese: A ‘Shame’ Mass Was Suspended
The Archdiocese for the Military Services is not a party to Father Leonard’s suit and declined to comment on the merits of the case. However, John Schlageter, general counsel of the Military Archdiocese, told the Register it was a “shame” that Catholics stationed at Kings Bay were greeted with a sign that told them “Catholic Mass will be suspended until further notice,” even though Father Leonard “was present and willing to celebrate Mass.”
He said, “It is the sincere hope of the archdiocese that the Anti-Deficiency Act of 1870 will never again trump the free-exercise rights of those in uniform.”
Peter Jesserer is a Register staff writer.