DOD Bars 50 Priests from Administering Sacraments, Locks Up Eucharist; Priest Sues

Terence P. Jeffrey | October 15, 2013 | 11:51am EDT
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A priest holding the Eucharist, Holy Communion. (AP)

( -- The Obama administration is continuing to prohibit approximately 50 Catholic priests from saying Mass and administering other sacraments at U.S. military facilities around the world, according to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services.

Father Ray Leonard, who is one of these priests, and who serves as the Catholic chaplain at Navel Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia, filed suit Monday against the Department of Defense, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Department of the Navy and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. His suit—joined by Navy veteran Fred Naylor, who is a member of the Catholic congregation at Kings Bay--alleges that the administration is violating his and his congregation’s First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly.

DOD has been prohibiting Father Leonard and the other Catholic priests from administering the sacraments and providing other services to their congregations even though two weeks ago Congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed, a law that instructed DOD to maintain on the job and keep paying contract employees who were supporting the troops.

DOD took this action because Hagel determined--after consulting with Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department--that civilian Catholic priests, working under contract as chaplains, did not, among other things, “contribute to the morale” and “well-being” of service personnel.

"The Department of Defense consulted closely with the Department of Justice, which expressed its view that the law does not permit a blanket recall of all civilians," Hagel said in an Oct. 5 memorandum. "Under our current reading of the law, the standard of 'support to members of the Armed Forces' requires a focus on those employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of covered military members during the lapse of appropriations."

Among the specific examples Hagel provided of civilian contractors whom he believes meet this standard are those working in secular "Family Support Programs and Activities," "Behavorial Health and Suicide Prevention Programs" and "Health Care Activities and Providers"--but not priests.

“As the Catholic Pastor for the base, Father Leonard celebrates daily and weekend Mass, hears confession, and administers the Sacraments, which take place on the base,” says the lawsuit filed for Father Leonard by the Thoma More Law Center.

“Father Leonard wishes to continue practicing his faith and ministering to his faith community free of charge on the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay during the government shut-down, but has been told that he is subject to arrest if he does so,” says the suit.

There are about 300 Catholic families on the base that Father Leonard serves. "Father Leonard is not permitted to perform Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes, meetings, and preparations on the Naval Base," says the lawsuit. "Therefore, all preparation of Catholic Sacraments, such as confirmation and marriage are cancelled."

Father Leonard, who spent a decade serving the Tibetan population in China, likened the administration’s behavior to that of the regime in the People’s Republic.

“In China, I was disallowed from performing public religious services due to the lack of religious freedom in China,” Father Leonard said in a statement. "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.”

Father Leonard is far from being alone among Catholic priests that the administration is subjecting to this treatment.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. (AP)

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, led by Archbishop Timothy Broglio, explained to on Tuesday that there are about 900 Catholic priests serving Catholics in the military and their families at bases worldwide. These include priests who are serving on active-duty in the military, priests who are general schedule civilian government employees, and priests who are not government employees but who are on contract to the military to provide chaplain services to military personnel.

On Sunday, Oct. 6, the DOD prevented some general schedule priests as well as contract priests from administering the sacraments at military bases. This included, for example, both Father Leonard and Father Larry Smith, S.J. of Georgetown University, who serves at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. Father Smith, who is a general schedule federal employee, was allowed to return to his chaplain duties by Sunday, Oct. 13.

However, according to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, Father Leonard and about 50 other Catholic priests serving on contract at military facilities have not been allowed to return to serving military personnel.

As Father Leonard's lawsuit states, such priests were not allowed to administer sacraments even on a volunteer basis.

Defense Secretary Hagel, according to Father Leonard's lawsuit, decided to continue to block contract priests even though Congress had passed and President Barack Obama had signed the Pay Our Military Act at the end of last month before the government shutdown began.

That law provided that during a shutdown active duty military personnel would be paid, and that civilian Defense Department personnel and contractors would continue to serve and be paid if the secretary determined they are “providing support to members of the Armed Forces.”

After Hagel determined that civilian Catholic priests did not meet his standard of "providing support" to military personnel, and thus could not return to work like civilian "family support" or "behavioral health" personal, DOD decided that the Anti-Deficiency Act barred civilian priests from even volunteering to administer the sacraments to Catholic military personnel at military facilities.

At Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, the DOD went so far as to lock up the chapel and sequester the Holy Eucharist inside it. Catholics believe the Holy Eucharist is literally the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

(AP Photo)

“The doors to the Kings Bay Chapel were locked on October 4, 2013, with the Holy Eucharist, Holy water, Catholic hymn books, and vessels all locked inside,” said Father Leonard’s lawsuit. “Father Leonard and his parishioners, including Fred Naylor, were prohibited from entering.”

Fred Naylor is a Navy veteran, who attends Mass at the chapel, and who joined in the lawsuit.

And although DOD locked the chapel against a Catholic priest and his congregation, it opened the chapel to members of other denominations.

"The Kings Bay Chapel remains open to other faiths and is being used for their religious services," says the lawsuit. "The Department of Defense has allowed the Protestant community to continue their services in the chapel during the government shutdown, without threat of penalty."

"On October 7, 2013," says the suit, "Father Leonard was informed that he was not permitted to even visit the chapel or his office on the Naval Base."

Father Leonard’s complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, explains that the chapel at Kings Bay is especially important to the sailors there because of the remoteness of the base and the lack of ready ground transportation to the closest Catholic church off base.

“The submarine base is remotely located,” says the suit. “The closest Catholic Church is off base in the town of St. Mary’s. This is roughly eight miles away from the Naval Base."

“Many of Father Leonard’s parishioners live and work on the Naval Base and do not own a car or have access to other transportation,” it says. “This makes a sixteen mile journey to and from church impossible for many of Fr. Leonard’s parishioners, particularly sailors who are not given enough break time to walk sixteen miles and attend the Mass service.

“Catholics are required by the dictates of their faith to attend Mass and to receive Communion on the Sabbath each week,” says the suit.

Father Leonard’s lawsuit alleges the government is infringing on the First Amendment-protected rights of the free exercise of religion and the freedom of assembly.

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