Catholic Sailors Win Fight for Religious Freedom in US Navy

Why was the Navy’s July 8 clarification on religious liberty required?

The Carrier Airwing Three (CVW-3) chaplain stands behind the 'foul line' observing the launch of an F-14 Tomcat from the flight deck of USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) during Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 22, 2003.
The Carrier Airwing Three (CVW-3) chaplain stands behind the 'foul line' observing the launch of an F-14 Tomcat from the flight deck of USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) during Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 22, 2003. (photo: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Ryan O'Connor)

As a resident of Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island, where on-base indoor religious services were suspended in March and a U.S. Navy directive in June forbade me from attending off-base indoor religious services, I was stripped of my right and duty to worship my Lord and Savior.

I found myself stuck in a moral dilemma: Should I adhere to the general order and forgo the sacraments, considering that, like most American Catholics, I had lived without the sacraments since mid-March? Or should I disregard the order, face its administrative consequences, and participate in the celebration of the Holy Mass?

This concern no longer existed when, on the evening of July 8, the U.S. Navy released a memo with the subject line reading, “Clarification of Guidance Related to Attendance at Religious Services,” which highlighted that nothing in the original Navy directive, issued June 23, that banned sailors from attending off-base indoor religious services, “should be construed to restrict attendance at places of worship where attendees are able to appropriately apply COVID-19 transmission mitigation measures, specifically social distancing and use of face covering.” Why was this clarification on religious liberty required?

Immediately upon the release of the Navy directive on June 23, an order that effectively prohibited sailors from freely exercising their right to worship because on-base indoor religious services were previously suspended and off-base indoor religious services were now banned, many service members — subject to Navy regulations — appealed to their local commanders for a religious accommodation. Legal firms specializing in religious liberty, notably First Liberty Institute, assisted these sailors in providing sound legal advice in their fight for religious liberty.

The Navy made the decision to include off-base indoor religious services along with the other prohibited activities — dining-in at restaurants, visiting your local barbershop, relaxing on a public beach and shopping at all non-essential commercial retail establishment — in order to effectively combat COVID-19 and maintain operational readiness for any potential threat that harms America. This decision was foremost guided by a clause in a Navy instruction, which states:

“In line with section 2000bb-1 of Title 42, United States Code, requests for religious accommodation from a military policy, practice or duty that substantially burdens a Sailor’s exercise of religion may be denied only when the military policy, practice or duty furthers a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means available of furthering that compelling government interest.”

The compelling government interest, in this case, was to maintain a naval force free of COVID-19, so if a unit was tasked with an urgent mission, it could be accomplished without hesitation or fear of medical reprisal. Thus, the Navy, influenced by this among other reasons, prohibited its sailors from participating in “events designed to promote large gatherings, to include religious services.” Despite the need to be COVID-free, this compelling interest did not merit the curtailing of the religious freedom of sailors’ immediate family members and was by no means the least restrictive as this order completely banned the free exercise of worship while other freedoms, which were equally as exposed to the virus, were granted.

If we examine the original Navy directive, one observed that the freedom of assembly — albeit limited in numerical scope — was not completely banned as in-residence gatherings that include no more than “ten guests that do not reside in the residence” were authorized while exercising “prudent precautions.” This allowance raised the question why indoor religious services were not afforded the same luxury. If a Catholic priest invited 10 guests to celebrate the Holy Mass at his parish, akin to his residence, did this not fit the gathering criteria?

Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, in his response letter to the Navy directive, highlighted a logical anomaly. Finding that the directive did not prohibit military family members from attending religious services, for this exceeded military legal jurisdiction, he responded, “Those family members return home where the military member lives. What is the protective effect of the prohibition for the Navy personnel? Zero.”

In a Statement of Interest filed on behalf of a Mississippi Church, Attorney General William Barr acknowledged that “the Constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances,” but he distinctly pointed out, “even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.” Therefore, Barr closed, “the government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”      

Although this order negatively affected sailors of all faith backgrounds, it disproportionately impacted Catholic sailors. In his letter, Archbishop Broglio wrote, “Participation in the Sunday Eucharist is life blood for Catholics. It is the source and summit of our lives and allows us to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.” For Catholics, the Eucharist, which is nearly always received in an indoor setting, is the ultimate source of spiritual strength and grace necessary to conquer our evil tendencies in this life and aid us on our journey to salvation. Our Lord Jesus Christ, in John 6:54, says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” There is no doubt that the moral life of Catholic sailors, unable to attend Mass and consume our Lord’s true body and blood, would have been detrimental, leaving the soul vulnerable to the pernicious attacks by the devil — though God, in his benevolence and mercy, would continue to provide an abundance of spiritual graces.

Catholic sailors can, once again, receive the sacraments and worship our Lord Jesus Christ. With this regained freedom, I am attending Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Newport, where the church is carefully abiding by CDC guidelines — operating at 25% capacity, requesting all Mass attendees to sanitize their hands before entering, suspending the use of the offering baskets, removing all missalettes, and so on. Such extreme health measures enforced in places of worship prove that these institutions are well prepared for the new COVID-19 reality and that sailors, who desire to exercise their right to worship, can do so without fear of contracting the virus or passing it along to their shipmates.

Francis Lee is a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy