Last week, many people were shocked to learn that while the government was shutdown, “many government service and contract priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide [were] not permitted to work – not even to volunteer,” according to the general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA, John Schlageter.
Schlageter wrote an op-ed piece on the Military Services USA webpage last Thursday expressing his concern and outrage that military personnel were being denied their First Amendment rights to freely exercise their religious faith. Because military personnel are considered a “captive audience,” the government is required to provide members access to their faith, which is why we have a military chaplaincy.
As of last Thursday, military priests were facing arrest if they celebrated mass or held any religious services on military bases during the government shutdown. This is due to the face that there is a shortage of active-duty Catholic chaplains, so the military often hires civilian priests to serve as contract ministers. However, during the shutdown, civilian priests are not allowed on military bases.
In an interview with The Daily Caller, Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, an Army veteran, said, “The constitutional rights of those who put their lives on the line for this nation do not end with a government slowdown.”
Schlageter said that the military appeared to be looking for alternative sources of funding to maintain base sporting events and other programs, but no effort had been made to enable Sunday masses to continue.
Today, lawmakers are being urged to authorize civilian contract priests on base to perform mass and other religious services. Until this exemption is granted, all services remain suspended.
Shortly after Schlageter released his statement, a resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives to allow religious services to resume.
The resolution brings to light that the government is charged with protecting the religious rights of its armed forces and asks Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “to permit the performance of religious services on property owned or maintained by the Department of Defense and to allow military chaplains to perform their ministry to the same extent that they did before the shutdown.”
The bill was sponsored by Republican representative Doug Collins, who used to be a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain.
This legislation was passed by the House in a 400-1 vote on Saturday and currently resides in the Senate.
Military Archbishop Timothy Brolio’s statement on the legislation resounded in my mind as an expression of the larger collective feeling of the nation during this government shutdown, which has affected the lives of so many.
“Military personnel enjoy, like all Americans, the First Amendment guarantee of the ‘Free Exercise’ of religion,” he said in a statement after the legislation passed in the House. “In the current political climate, however, nothing can be taken for granted.”
According to executive director for the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty Ron Crews, some Protestant services could also be impacted. The Protestant military services use contract employees for certain positions as well.
While it has not been voted on yet, the Senate is expected to approve this measure.
The government shutdown has trickled down and had (at least some) effect on the life of almost every American. The shutdown has temporarily suspended services not deemed necessary, which has caused many people to go without pay.
I think this religious angle helps give perspective to how far reaching the touch of this shutdown really is. Americans have taken to social media to express their outrage and concern.
Popular hashtags include #governmentshutdownprobs and #DearCongress, a hashtag sponsored by NBC News. Launched by Today’s Carson Daly, #DearCongress has been tweeted more than 75,000 times collectively across both Twitter and Facebook since last Tuesday.
Check out my follow-up post on the government shutdown & military chaplains- Military chaplains return to bases!