The federal government has reversed its closure of Catholic services on a Navy base in Georgia, which had been prompted by the partial government shutdown.
However, a lawsuit filed in the dispute will continue because backtracking doesn’t “erase” the constitutional issues that arose, contends a law firm arguing on behalf of Catholics on the base.
The Thomas More Law Center on Wednesday confirmed that the government decided to allow a Catholic priest to resume celebrating Mass at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia.
Federal officials had forbidden the Catholic services – even on a volunteer basis – because of the partial shutdown of the federal government that started Oct. 1.
The removal of the ban was confirmed both in a contact from three attorneys with the Department of Justice to attorney Erin Mersino of the Thomas More Law Center and through the chain of command to Father Ray Leonard, the law firm said.
The original closure order from the federal government had included the threat of arresting the priest.
As WND reported, the Thomas More Law Center filed a lawsuit Monday over what it described as “an astonishing attack on religious freedom.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington on behalf of Leonard, a Catholic priest contracted to serve as base chaplain, and Fred Naylor, one of Leonard’s parishioners and a retired veteran with more than 22 years of service.
Leonard, a civilian serving on a contract basis, had served Tibetan populations in China for years.
“I was disallowed from performing public religious services due to the lack of religious freedom in China,” he said in an affidavit. “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.”
The legal team reported Wednesday that Mersino was contacted by attorneys from Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department and told that Leonard could resume “all of his religious duties” and that the chapel would be open for “all Catholic activities.”
The orders also came to Leonard through the Navy chain of command.
“The actions of the federal government were a blatant attack on religious liberty,” said Richard Thompson, president of the law center. “I would never have imagined that our government would ever bar a Catholic priest from saying Mass under threat of arrest and prevent Catholics from participating in their religious exercises.”
Thompson emphasized that 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,” he said.
The legal team noted that while Leonard was furloughed and “threatened with arrest for visiting the chapel … on a voluntary basis,” Protestant services were allowed to continue.
“Only Catholic service members were left without services,” the organization said.
Canceled were daily and weekend Mass, special blessings, marriage preparation classes, counseling sessions, confessions and confirmations.
The legal team noted the submarine base is in a remote location. It consists of roughly 16,000 acres, with 4,000 acres comprised of protected wetlands. There are approximately 10,000 total people on the base.
While there is a Catholic church located in St. Mary’s, some 16 miles away, “many of the parishioners both live and work on base and do not own a car and cannot otherwise access transportation,” the report said.
Defendants in the lawsuit are the Department of Defense, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Department of the Navy and the Secretary of the Department of the Navy, Ray Mabus.
For active duty service members, on-base religious services are important due to limited transportation and minimal time off. Additionally, as service members tend to have high rates of divorce, depression and suicide, the need for readily available spiritual encouragement and guidance is critical, the legal team explained.