Fighting Back: Priest Blocked From Serving Naval Base Suing Federal Government


The story of those priests serving our military bases without active duty chaplains continues to develop. In a release from the Thomas More Law Center, it has been revealed that one furloughed priest is now suing the federal government for violating religious liberty:

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Father Ray Leonard, a Catholic priest contracted to serve as base chaplain and Fred Naylor, one of Father Leonard’s parishioners and a retired veteran with over 22 years of service. Fr. Leonard is a civilian Catholic Pastor contracted by the Department of Defense (DoD) to serve as a military chaplain at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia.

Fr. Leonard who served Tibetan populations in China for 10 years, informed the court in an affidavit; “In China, I was disallowed from performing public religious services due to the lack of religious freedom in China. I never imagined that when I returned home to the United States, that I would be forbidden from practicing my religious beliefs as I am called to do, and would be forbidden from helping and serving my faith community.”

On October 4, 2013, Fr. Leonard was ordered to stop performing all of his duties as the base’s Catholic Chaplain, even on a voluntary basis. He was also told that he could be arrested if he violated that order. The approximately 300 Catholic families, including Fred Naylor’s, served by Fr. Leonard at Kings Bay have been unable to attend Mass on base since the beginning of the shutdown.

Additionally, Fr. Leonard was locked out of his on-base office and the chapel. Fr. Leonard was also denied access to the Holy Eucharist and other articles of his Catholic faith. The order has caused the cancellation of daily and weekend mass, confession, marriage preparation classes and baptisms as well as prevented Fr. Leonard from providing the spiritual guidance he was called by his faith to provide.

The submarine base is remotely located.  It consists of roughly 16,000 acres, with 4,000 acres comprised of protected wetlands.  There are approximately 10,000 total people on the base.

A Catholic Church is located off base in the town of St. Mary’s.  However, many of the parishioners both live and work on base and do not own a car and cannot otherwise access transportation.  Therefore a sixteen (16) mile journey to and from the off-base church is simply not possible.  Moreover, many of the sailors have an extremely limited amount of time off.  With their time highly regimented, they are not given a long enough break time for this exceptionally long walk and the Mass service.

The release indicates that protestant services on base have been allowed to continue, although I have been unable to ascertain whether this has anything to do with the duty status of those chaplains. As we already know, active duty priests are not being prevented from providing the sacraments, but there are fewer than 250 such priests to serve over a quarter-million Catholic service members. In cases like Kings Bay, there are clearly any number of Catholics who can’t get to the sacraments without an on-base Mass provided by a contract priest.

We know that the House voted almost unanimously to reinstate the chaplains. We know that the Senate approved a slightly modified version of the House resolution last Thursday by unanimous voice vote. This means that the ball is back in the House of Representatives’ court, and is supposed to see a vote today.

But the lawsuit isn’t going to go away, even if this situation gets fixed. And the discrimination here, while it appears at least in some cases to be specifically targeted at Catholics, is symptomatic of a larger problem. I told you back in April about Army training material shown in a presentation to Pennsylvania reservists described Catholics, Evangelicals, and others as “extremists” — lumped in with militant Islamic groups like Hamas. At the time, the story garnered significant attention, but the Army made clear that this was the work of a single instructor and that the material did not represent the views of the U.S. Military. Fast forward to today, however, and a new story has revealed that another Christian group, the American Family Association (AFA), should be qualified as a “hate group” according to a briefing held for US Army reservists at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.

The charge? AFA advocates traditional family values and holds the position that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful. For this adherence to basic Christian doctrine, AFA was grouped in with the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church.

“The instructor said AFA could be considered a hate group because they don’t like gays,” the soldier told me. “The slide was talking about how AFA refers to gays as sinners and heathens and derogatory terms.”

The soldier, who is an evangelical Christian, said the chaplain defended the Christian ministry.

“He kept asking the instructor, ‘Are you sure about that, son? Are you sure about that?’” he said, recalling the back and forth.

Later in the briefing, the soldiers were reportedly told that they could face punishment for participating in organizations that are considered hate groups.

That considered, the soldier contacted me because he is a financial contributor to the AFA ministry.

“I donate to AFA as often as I can,” he said. “Am I going to be punished? I listen to American Family Radio all day. If they hear it on my radio, will I be faced with a Uniformed Code of Military Justice charge?”

The soldier said he was “completely taken back by this blatant attack not only on the AFA but Christians and our beliefs.”

This is how tyranny starts. It is rarely an overnight phenomenon. It begins as an outlying phenomenon, sometimes under the guise of something distasteful but somewhat understandable — such as the fact that priests contracted to serve the military are just affected by the same rules that apply to all other furloughed workers. That the application of these restrictions is extremely selective (after all, the president’s favorite golf course remained open during the shutdown, and the National Mall was open to a pro-immigration rally put on by organized labor and groups like La Raza while other citizens were being fined just for setting foot on National Park soil) is easy to miss unless you’re following the news closely. That isolated incidents crop up here and there in military briefings is also easy to dismiss. “It’s just one bad apple,” people say. “It’s not reflective of policy.”

Maybe not. Or maybe it’s just happening slowly, furtively, as boundaries are pushed and limits are tested. The transformation of culture has always been most effective when it is incremental.

We have to be on guard. We have to be vigilant. There are so many encroachments on our religious liberty happening that it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all at once. Lawsuits like this one being filed by the Thomas More Law Center are essential to shine the light on these abuses before they become standard practice. If we don’t push back, we’ll continue to lose ground.

In times like these, it would be good for us to have as our motto those words of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”



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