A Catholic military chaplain may once again perform his duties at a Georgia naval base after he sued the Department of Defense for prohibiting him from holding Mass and providing other services during the government shutdown.
Fr. Ray Leonard was ordered to stop performing his duties as chaplain for Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Kings Bay, Ga., during the government shutdown, according to the lawsuit filed Monday. Leonard, a civilian under contract with the Department of Defense, was told he could be arrested for offering on-base Catholic services – even if he did so as a volunteer – until the shutdown ends.
But attorney Erin Mersino with the Thomas More Law Center, the organization representing Leonard in the suit, received a call from Department of Justice attorneys Tuesday afternoon saying the chaplain could resume his duties beginning Wednesday morning.
"The actions of the Federal Government were a blatant attack on religious liberty," TMLC President and Chief Counsel Richard Thompson said in a statement. "I would never have imagined that our Government would ever bar Catholic Priest from saying Mass under threat of arrest and prevent Catholics from participating in their religious exercises. 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 lawsuit claims Leonard was told after the shutdown began that he could not enter the chapel or his on-base office. Counseling sessions, marriage preparation classes, confessions and other events for Catholics were cancelled, though other non-Catholic religious services were allowed to continue on the base.
The base is in a remote part of Georgia and is located approximately eight miles away from the nearest Catholic church. Many parishioners who live on base don't have cars or the time to walk to the church, the suit argues, so stopping on-base services hinders them from practicing their faith.
Joining Leonard as a plaintiff in the suit is Fred Naylor, a retired Navy veteran with more than 22 years in military experience, who is one of Leonard's parishioners. The suit claims the DOD violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the duo's First Amendment rights.
About 25 percent of people in the Armed Forces are Catholic, according to TMLC, but a shortage of uniformed Catholic chaplains causes the military to contract civilian priests to meet the spiritual needs of Catholic service members in some places.
A Navy spokesperson told The Christian Post that those contracts were put on hold due to a lack of appropriations, but as of Wednesday they have been turned back on. In all, a total of 31 contracts – 27 Navy and four Marine Corps – have been turned back on so the affected civilian Catholic clergy can get back to ministering to Catholics on base.