Last October I told you how the federal government shutdown was affecting Catholic Priests contracted to perform chaplain duties for the underserved Catholics in the US military. You shared that post far and wide, and it became the most-read item on CatholicVote in 2013 with nearly 350,000 views.
I believe that the story resonated so deeply because of the critical issue it represents: namely, the ongoing battle between the US Government and American Catholics over religious liberty. While Catholics are certainly not alone in this fight, we stand as the single greatest bulwark against the culture of death as it threatens to consume our society. The teaching of the Catholic Church is uniquely unequivocal on life issues. We do not compromise. We do not make exceptions. We are at the heart of the pro-life movement.
And that puts us directly in the crosshairs of a government that is increasingly beholden to interests which are waging a war against the dignity of human life. Most notably, our opposition on religious grounds to the HHS contraception and abortion coverage mandates has made us a notorious thorn in the side of what is arguably the most pro-abortion, anti-Catholic administration in US history.
The legal fight between the Obama Administration and the Little Sisters of the Poor is one noteworthy example of how this battle is playing out at the current moment.
Now, there is another example: the case of Father Ray Leonard, a priest contracted to serve the Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia, who was forcibly furloughed during the government shutdown last October. As I reported last year, Father Leonard decided to fight back, and with the help of the Thomas More Law Center, he filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the Department of Defense and the Navy after being faced with a situation that was hard to believe:
On October 4, 2013, during the Government shutdown, Father 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.
Additionally, Father Leonard was locked out of his on-base office and the chapel. Father Leonard was denied access to the Holy Eucharist and other articles of his Catholic faith. The order caused the cancellation of daily and weekend mass, confession, marriage preparation classes and baptisms as well as prevented Father Leonard from providing the spiritual guidance he was called by his faith to provide.
The services of other Christian denominations at Kings Bay were allowed to continue throughout the shutdown. Only Catholics were left without services.
To be clear, Father Leonard was not serving as an active duty priest, unlike the other Christian chaplain on base, so he alone was impacted by the provisions of the Anti-Deficiency Act. But the effect on his ministry and those he serves was no less severe. Active duty Catholic chaplains in the US military are a rare commodity, making contract priests often the only priests available to provide any and all sacraments and other spiritual services to Catholics on base.
And as I reported last year, the situation for Catholics on this particular base was not as simple as just heading down to the local Catholic parish:
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 situation facing Catholics at the Kings Bay Naval Base was clearly serious. One day after filing the lawsuit, attorneys from the Justice Department did call and tell Father Leonard that he could return to his duties. They also informed him that the chapel on base could be re-opened.
But the good news didn’t last. Before the end of October, 2013, Father Leonard was told by government officials that his contract was no longer considered “valid” — despite the period of time specified in the contract beginning on October 1, 2013 and extending until September 30, 2014.
In addition, Father Leonard’s pay was withheld for the months of November and December. (He was later paid for December, but never received a payment for November’s services.) Since Father Leonard had recently returned from working for a decade serving impoverished Tibetans living in China, he had no savings or other means of providing for himself. And as a priest assigned to the Archdiocese for Military Services and serving the naval base rather than assigned to a local parish, he had financial obligations, such as paying rent, that he was unable meet without pay.
Father Leonard has stated 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.”
The withholding of pay wasn’t the only action taken by the government after Father Leonard filed his lawsuit:
The retaliation involves repeated Government assertions that the employment contract under which Father Leonard was working is no longer “valid”, demands that he must sign a new contract containing several pages of onerous new terms if he wants to be paid and refusals to pay for services he had already performed.
As a result, the Thomas More Law Center (“TMLC”), a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, MI, on January 6, 2014 filed an amended complaint in their original federal lawsuit to prevent further retaliation against Father Leonard for exercising his constitutional rights. The amended complaint added a claim against the government for its retaliation toward Father Leonard which occurred after the filing of the initial complaint.
According to an attorney I spoke with at the Thomas More Law Center, despite every reason to believe that the existing contract is valid and in force until September of this year, the government wants Father Leonard to sign a new contract with five additional pages of terms and conditions. Among these is the the ability for the government to conduct a ”review of Father Leonard’s records”. While he is currently being paid, the situation is extremely tenuous, and the government has already demonstrated a willingness to violate the terms of his contract and their obligation to pay him for his services.
I have heard the objection in the past that a Catholic priest shouldn’t concern himself with being paid to offer the sacraments to the faithful. And while there is a general truth to the fact that sacraments are offered without regard for compensation, the US government is contractually obligated to pay Father Leonard, who has financial obligations of his own as a priest living in private (not diocesan) housing near the base. It is a matter of justice that he be paid, and it is worth remembering that depriving a worker of his just wages is one of the sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance. As an act of retaliation against a priest who stood his ground on his First Amendment rights, the government’s actions seem to indicate a vindictive streak we’ve seen before, as with the use of the IRS to target political groups opposed to the administration.
When the original story about furloughed priests broke, Catholics contacted their members of Congress and successfully urged them take a vote to reinstate the furloughed chaplains. But this lawsuit is different. While raising awareness of Father Leonard’s case is important, the outcome will not be influenced by political pressure. The case has to make its way through the judicial system, where the ultimate decision will be made.
If you wish to support this case, you can make a donation to the Thomas More Law Center, which is providing their legal services to Father Leonard on a pro bono basis. If you are unable to support the effort financially, I recommend that you pray and share this story. As with the Little Sisters of the Poor, the more people who know, the more unpopular this kind of retaliatory action on the part of the government becomes.