In what has been described as “an astonishing attack on religious freedom,” Catholics at a Navy base were banned from attending worship services because of the partial shutdown of the federal government.
In response, the Thomas More Law Center announced it has filed a lawsuit over the orders at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia.
The legal team said a Catholic priest who serves the community on the military base “has been prohibited from even volunteering to celebrate Holy Mass without pay and was told that if he violated that order, he could be subject to arrest.”
Without explanation, however, Protestant services continued.
“This is an astonishing attack on religious freedom by the federal government and the latest affront toward the military since the beginning of the shutdown,” said a report by the Thomas More Law Center.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington on behalf of Father Ray 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.”
Ten days ago, Leonard was ordered to stop performing all of his duties as the base’s Catholic chaplain, even as a volunteer. He was also told that he could be arrested if he violated the order. The approximately 300 Catholic families, including Naylor’s, served by Leonard at Kings Bay have been unable to attend Mass on base since the beginning of the shutdown, the legal team said.
“Additionally, Fr. Leonard was locked out of his on-base office and the chapel. Fr. Leonard was also denied access to the Holy Eucharist and other articles of his Catholic faith. The order has caused the cancellation of daily and weekend Mass, confession, marriage preparation classes and baptisms as well as prevented Fr. Leonard from providing the spiritual guidance he was called by his faith to provide.”
The legal team said 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 very 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.
The Pay Our Military Act, which was enacted before the beginning of the government shutdown, provides funding for employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale and well-being of the military. The government has been criticized for interpreting the act to not include military death benefits. Now, the Thomas More Center said, in yet another bizarre interpretation of the act, some chaplains are not considered covered by these provisions, leaving Catholic members of some military facilities without spiritual guidance.
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