UPDATE: 9 a.m. EDT Sept. 10: Following pushback from political and religious officials, the U.S. Navy reversed its decision to terminate contracts with civilian Catholic priests.
Shortly before the Navy announced the reversal, the First Liberty Institute, which describes itself as “the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans,” sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper expressing concern about the decision. The organization was pleased with the reversal.
“We commend the Navy’s quick course correction,” First Liberty General Counsel Mike Berry said in a statement. “If we are to remain the greatest military on the planet, we must ensure that our service members have access to the spiritual support they need.”
The U.S. Navy is facing allegations of discrimination after it decided to terminate its relationship with several Catholic priests who lead masses at naval bases while leaving chaplains of other religious denominations in place.
According to a report from The San Diego Union-Tribune, the Navy has declined to renew the contracts of several civilian Catholic priests serving at San Diego-area Navy bases and other bases nationwide despite there being a shortage of active-duty Catholic chaplains.
At naval bases that are far removed from any Catholic churches in the surrounding communities, contracted civilian Catholic priests will remain in place.
Brian O’Rourke, a spokesperson for the Navy Region Southwest, cited a desire to minister to “active duty Sailors and Marines in the 18-25 year-old range” as the motivation behind “the difficult decision to discontinue most contracted ministry services.”
The Christian Post reached out to O'Rourke for clarification but did not receive an immediate response.
Admiral Yancey Lindsey, the commander of the Navy Installations Command, pointed to “limited resources” as the reason why the Navy had to “reduce redundancies” by “realigning resources.” The Navy first announced its “national realignment” on Aug. 20.
While Catholics at most of the affected Navy bases have the option to attend Catholic mass at nearby parishes, Catholics currently serving on naval bases have argued that the base churches have created a strong sense of community.
In an interview with The Union-Tribune, Anne-Marie Miley, a retired Navy pilot, described the Coronado and North Island parish that she spent more than a decade volunteering at as a “community thing.” “The church out in town has a large congregation; it’s much more personal to go on base,” she said.
Rev. Jose Pimentel, who has led services at the aforementioned parish for the past eight years, will be departing from his position on Sept. 30, when his contract will come to an end two years early. “One issue is discrimination [and] another is the violation of the right to practice your religion,” he said.
The move to cut back on Catholic priests in the Navy comes as religious freedom advocates have expressed growing concerns about the ability of service members to practice their religion.
Over the past several months, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has filed complaints against several military chaplains for speaking about their faith on social media.
In response to a complaint from MRFF, the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade at Fort Drum, New York, removed videos of two of their chaplains calling on service members to put their faith in God as they dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. The MRFF also complained after an army chaplain stationed in South Korea sent his colleagues a copy of an e-book titled Coronavirus and Christ.
Earlier this year, the Navy came under fire for issuing an order that critics argued prevented troops from attending religious services while allowing them to go to house parties. The Navy later clarified its guidance, stressing that worship services could take place as long as measures designed to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus were implemented.