Military Chaplains 'Shutdown' During Government Shutdown

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  • Nate Kellum
    Nate Kellum is Chief Counsel for the Center for Religious Expression.
By Nate Kellum, CP Op-Ed Contributor
October 9, 2013|10:54 am

As Americans start to feel the effects of the on-going stalemate in Washington, many have wondered about the decisions directing which aspects of the government are shut down during a "government shutdown." Who decides and on what basis the approximate 17 percent of the government that is put on hold? One would presume the importance of the service and the necessity of funding would guide the process. But a press release from John Schlageter, General Counsel for Archdiocese for the U.S. Military, indicates other motivations are at work.

Schalageter reports that non-active-duty priests are barred from engaging in any ministerial activity - even if they serve on a volunteer basis. Not only is their work deemed "non-essential" so as to place them on furlough, but "non-authorized" so as to ban them from ministering on base.

Because of shortages of active-duty chaplains, at over 220 U.S. military installations in 29 countries and 153 VA Medical Centers throughout the U.S., contract chaplains serve American troops. The shortage is particularly felt among Roman Catholic service members, who make up over 25 percent of the military.

These government contractors "of the cloth" provide our service members with their only chance to worship on a regular basis with others who share their faith, and serve them in all the ordinary ways a pastor can, being with them through life's most joyous and difficult moments.

Regardless, contract chaplains are among the first on the chopping block.

"If the government shutdown continues through the weekend, there will be no Catholic priest to celebrate Mass this Sunday in the chapels at some U.S. military installations," warns Schlageter.

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So Catholics could receive weekly sacraments, many priests were more than willing to forego pay, but Schlageter explains they have been coerced to refrain despite lack of expense. "During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so."

For priests serving our troops to worry about criminal arrest for trespassing in the spaces they worked only days ago, and will likely return shortly, is not only silly, but also alarming. This petty action directly threatens the constitutionally preserved freedoms of these priests and Catholic soldiers to exercise and express their faith.

Apparently, the Administration views the governmental shutdown as an opportunity to score political points, exaggerating harm and blaming Republicans. But while the closing of national parks - even those not managed by federal employees - was troubling enough, this fiasco with the contract chaplains infringes on fundamental freedoms.

First Amendment rights are not appropriate pawns in the hands of politicians. Even if the government shuts down, the Bill of Rights does not.

This trampling on religious exercise - going beyond the principle of the matter - affects real people in profound ways. Aside from cancelled worship services, there are reports of baptisms being called off and even a priest being banned from officiating at the wedding of a couple he had counseled through the premarital process.

For those men and women who put their lives on the line to serve God and country to lose access to their pastors is unacceptable. Congress needs to remember their duty to defend and uphold the Constitution as well as the concerns.

Nate Kellum is chief counsel for the Center for Religious Expression a non-profit organization in Memphis, TN dedicated entirely to the protection of religious speech.
 

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