House Passes Bill to Prevent Arrest of Priests for Holding Services at Military Bases During Shutdown

The House passed a bill on Saturday to let military chaplains hold services during the shutdown, as Catholic priests under government contract were not allowed to offer communion and other religious services on military bases. Priests could even get arrested for volunteering.

The House voted 400-1 to reinstate furloughed chaplains on a volunteer basis on Saturday afternoon. The one House member who was against the resolution is Rep. William Enyart, a Democrat from Illinois, according to NPR.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia and a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain.

House Republicans were outraged by the fact that chaplains could be barred from offering services due to the shutdown. "Is it really the policy of this administration to make church services illegal? To threaten Catholic priests with jail?" asked Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas, during a debate on the measure.

"The constitutional rights of those who put their lives on the line for this nation do not end with a government slowdown," Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo said in a statement Friday. "It is completely irresponsible for the president to turn his back on every American's First Amendment rights by furloughing military contract clergy."

Pompeo added that President Barack Obama's strategy during the slowdown, just as during the sequestration, "is to create as much pain as possible." "However, this action crosses a constitutional line of obstructing every U.S. service member's ability to practice his or her religion."

Due to the shortage of active-duty Catholic military chaplains, the government hired GS (government services) and contract priests who are not permitted to work or volunteer in a shutdown. They can technically be arrested if they volunteer, John Schlageter, general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, told The Christian Post earlier.

The ban is only for the GS and contract priests who do not currently have a contract, while those who already have a contract for the new fiscal year can still minister on bases, Schlageter explained.

"While roughly 25% of the military is Catholic, Catholic priests make up only about 8% of the chaplain corps," Schlageter said in a statement. "That means approximately 275,000 men and women in uniform, and their families, are served by only 234 active-duty priests."

Some Protestant services could also be impacted, Ron Crews, executive director for the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, told The Christian Post. For, some Protestant military services use contract employees for certain positions, such as organists and nursery workers, he explained.

Meanwhile, the House also passed on Saturday a bill for the more than 800,000 federal workers who were furloughed due to the shutdown to receive back pay once they return to work.

The Senate is expected to approve both the measures.

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