Priest employed by government claims shutdown violates religious freedom

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WASHINGTON — A Catholic priest has gone to court, saying the partial government shutdown is preventing him from providing religious services on a U.S. military base.

Father Ray Leonard filed a lawsuit Monday in federal district court in Washington, saying he “wishes to continue practicing his faith and ministering to his faith community free of charge… but has been told that he is subject to arrest if he does so.”

Leonard is a newly hired civilian employee, scheduled to start work October 1 to provide Catholic religious services at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia.

The priest was one of thousands of civilian military employees and contractors furloughed because of the failure of Congress to reach a deal on funding the federal government. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has since recalled some Defense Department workers, but civilian military chaplains were excluded.

Leonard and co-plaintiff Fred Naylor, a veteran who attends Catholic services, said their First Amendment right of religious expression and outreach was being violated.

The base is located in St. Marys near the South Georgia coast. Active duty chaplains are still being allowed to administer to the Catholic base community, according to Kings Bay officials.

The men are represented by the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, which calls the case an “astonishing attack on religious freedom by the federal government, and the latest affront toward the military since the beginning of the shutdown.”

There was no reaction from base officials to the pending litigation.

The lawsuit says about 300 Catholic families in Leonard’s faith community have been unable to attend Mass on base since the shutdown began. Leonard has been locked out of his office and denied access to articles of his faith, including the Holy Eucharist.

A sign on the door of the base chapel says “Catholic Mass will be suspended until further notice,” and that “active duty chaplains will be continue to facilitate, provide, care and advise the Subase community.”

Parishioners are advised to attend an off-base Catholic church about eight miles away.

In an affidavit, Leonard said he had previously served the Tibetan community in China for a decade. “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.”

There are about 10,000 people who live, work, and use the navy base.

Leonard also claims “members of religions, other than the Roman Catholic religion, have been afforded access to the chapel to engage in religious exercise in conformity with their respective faiths.”

The notice from chapel staff says, “Protestant services will continue to be held in the Subase chapel Sundays @ 1030. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

The government will be given a chance to respond to the lawsuit in coming weeks. It was unclear whether any end to the shutdown and resumption of the Catholic services would stop the lawsuit from proceeding.

The case is Leonard v. U.S. Department of Defense (1:13-cv-1571).

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