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Government Shuts Down Catholic Services on Navy Base

relig-freedomIn the wake of the government shutdown, despite provisions in the Pay Our Military Act, Catholics at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia are being denied religious services. The Catholic priest who serves this community has been prohibited from even volunteering to celebrate Holy Mass without pay, and was told that if he violated that order, he could be subject to arrest. Protestant services continue to take place.  Only Catholic services have been shutdown.

This is an astonishing attack on religious freedom by the federal government, and the latest affront towards the military since the beginning of the shutdown.
As a result, the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, MI, today, filed a federal lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

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.

Defendants in the lawsuit are the Department of Defense (DoD), Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Department of the Navy, and the Secretary of the Department of the Navy, Ray Mabus.

Currently, about 25% of the US Armed Forces is Catholic and due to a shortage of active duty Catholic Priests, the DoD contracts Catholic Priests to provide religious services, sacraments and support for other religious practices for military base communities. Catholic Priests serve the Military Archdiocese.

For active duty service members, on base religious services are extremely important given issues associated with off base transportation, extremely limited time off and the highly scheduled lifestyle of active military duty. Additionally, as service members tend to have high rates of divorce, depression and suicide, the need for readily available spiritual encouragement and guidance is critical.

The Pay Our Military Act, which was enacted before the beginning of the government shutdown, provides provisions for the funding of employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale and well-being of the military. The government has previously been criticized for interpreting the Act to not include military death benefits. Now, in yet another bizarre interpretation of the Act, some chaplains are not considered covered by these provisions, leaving Catholic members of some military facilities without spiritual guidance.


This article is courtesy of the Thomas More Law Center. The Law Center defends and promotes the religious freedom of Christians, time-honored family values, and the sanctity of human life through education, litigation and related activities. It does not charge for its services. The Law Center is supported by contributions from individuals, corporations and foundations, and is recognized by the IRS as a section 501(c)(3) organization. You may reach the Thomas More Law Center at (734) 827-2001 or visit our website at www.thomasmore.org.


  • goral

    Only less than 20% of the gov’t has been put on hold. The rest of the leviathan is doing just fine. The money has been withheld from the military and other important functions of the gov’t that affect the lives and morale of the people who serve. The tyrant’s caddy is still getting paid for carrying his bags. The soldiers who solute his backside as he boards the plane are still on duty.

    The national parks and other fed. recreation areas actually bring in more money than it costs to run them. This is the signature and trademark of the Chicago thug who despises that which is good about this country.
    I saw his blatant arrogance the first time around.

    Why is it that so many didn’t? As if I didn’t know.

  • nannon31

    The above essay is leaving out something in order to stir emotions unnecessarily. What is the reason Protestants can continue services? Is it because they can proceed without any altar which is specific to the room in question? Is it something to do with air conditioning or heating bills in that specific section or building? The article makes no attempt to explain the Catholic/ Protestant discrepancy which attempt should include the military’s explanation of the discrepancy. This is not good Catholic writing. Frankly it’s lawyer-ish in the negative sense not in the truthful sense.

    • Marge Simpson

      I think it has more to do with the priest being a contract chaplain vs active duty. The protestant chaplain is probably active duty. That said, it is still wrong that the Catholic residents are denied the practice of their faith, which is more than just going to church on Sunday. I would expect that Father Leonard would risk arrest to serve God and the community. But he can’t even get into his office or chapel to get the sacramentals needed to perform his duties. And this is not the only base where this outrage is occurring.

      • nannon31

        Marge,
        That’s the point. Your first sentence just gave more non paranoid real facts than one is finding from the blogs reporting on this. Here’s Fr. Damien Merrin from a combox elsewhere: ” The reason that the protestant services continue is that the protestant minister is probably full time military chaplain and falls under essential, while most Masses are run by contract priests. Pastors from parishes close by that say Mass at the base for a stipend. They are willing to volunteer which is great and its very petty that someone in command will not allow it. That same person probably wants to do the same to the protestants but they can’t without firing an enlisted chaplain.”
        Non paranoia is a nice thing. There may be legal obstacles to allowing volunteers in that specific capacity.

        • goral

          “its very petty that someone in command will not allow it.”
          Please, try to temper your outrage.

          ” There may be legal obstacles to allowing volunteers in that specific capacity.”
          Forgot about the legal obstacles.

          I have to admit, I do get “paranoid” when an anointed of God is threatened with jail time for serving his Master.

  • Marge Simpson