An update regarding the Federal lawsuit by the Thomas More Law Center on behalf of Fr. Ray Leonard. Fr. Leonard is a contract preist at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine base in Georgia.
One day after the lawsuit was filed, three U.S. Department of Justice attorneys contacted the Thomas More Law Center to alert Mersino that Father Leonard would be able to return to the base to perform Catholic services. Subsequently, the Navy chain of command confirmed the new guidance.
In a statement released after the government reversed its policy, Richard Thompson, the president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, expressed alarm that contract priests like Father Leonard had been barred from serving Catholics on military bases and described the policy as a “blatant attack on religious liberty.”
“I would never have imagined that our government would ever bar Catholic priests from saying Mass under threat of arrest and prevent Catholics from participating in their religious exercises,” said Thompson.
“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.”
The Archdiocese for the Military Services has also expressed alarm about the furloughing of contract priests, who are needed to complement the short supply of active-duty Catholic military chaplains.
Taylor Henry, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said it would have no formal response to the lawsuit. But he told the Register that the Air Force had contacted the archdiocese to confirm that the contract priests would be allowed to return to Air Force bases to celebrate Mass and fulfill other duties.
We will just have to wait and see if the situation has actually been resolved for now.
John Schlageter, the general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, spoke with the Register earlier this month about the developing situation and frustration that the military appeared to be looking for “alternative” sources of funding to maintain other programs on bases, like sporting events, but there appeared to be less concern about securing Sunday Mass services.
During an Oct. 16 interview, Schlageter told the Register that the Air Force had just notified his office that furloughed contract priests could return to their duties, though it was not clear whether they would be paid.The new guidance designated all Air Force “contract clergy as ‘excepted’ for the purpose of the current shutdown.”
Further, Schlageter said that, on Oct. 10, he had been told that the Department of the Navy had also changed its policy that prevented priests with contracts that began on Oct. 1 from performing their duties. However, the AMS still has not received any formal notice to that effect, and many priests were barred from celebrating Mass on naval bases on Oct. 12. The AMS has not received any new guidance from the Army.
As for what is essential:
In the wake of the government shutdown, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that many civilian personnel provided “essential” services and thus would not be sent home. However, contract priests were not deemed “essential.”
In a presidential administration where the Constitution is not essential this comes as no surprise.