That same day, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a memorandum explaining the administration's interpretation the Pay Our Military Act. Its key passage said: "Under our current reading of the law, the standard of 'support members of the Armed Forces' requires a focus on those employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of covered military members during the lapse of appropriations."
Did civilian Catholic chaplains contribute to morale and well-being? Not according to the Obama administration.
Further, because the administration decided civilian priests could not return to work under the terms of their contracts, those priests were barred by the Anti-Deficiency Act from even volunteering their services.
At some military bases around the world that meant Catholic service members had no one to administer the sacraments.
"Well, we do have a church within a 10-mile radius here," said Father Leonard. "But the problem is that a lot of our enlisted active people, they may be on duty on the weekend. They may only have one hour set aside where they can leave their work and come to Mass, and they would never be able to make the driving out into town and then coming back."
"There's other people that might be on a security job and they cannot leave the base," he said. "So, there are people telling me that they had to miss Mass. They didn't have any other option -- even here at Kings Bay."
On Monday, Oct. 7, Father Leonard learned he was prohibited from engaging in any priestly activities on the base. He could not even go to his office.
On Thursday, Oct. 10, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution to address the matter. Echoing the language of Defense Secretary Hagel's memorandum, it said Congress "finds that the provision and availability of religious services and clergy is important to the morale and well-being of many members of the Armed Forces and their families" and thus "hoped" Hagel would find that contract clergy "would therefore be covered under the appropriations made available under the Pay Our Military Act."
Hagel and the administration paid no attention to the congressional resolutions. Into the next week, they continued to prohibit civilian priests from administering the sacraments on military bases.
"We were not brought back," said Father Leonard. It was a move he describes as "an open slap in the face to Catholics."
"People like family counselors, and even people who were working in the gym, were brought back before I was," he said.
In China, says Father Leonard, "We expected the Communist Party to interfere and block religious services. They were very clear that they despised religion and they would do that. There was no question. But the great surprise is to be here and be standing in front of my chapel where I am the pastor and told that you can't have services here by decree of the government."
Represented by the Thomas More Law Center, this heroic priest is now suing the U.S. Department of Defense for violating the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. He says he will take the case all the way to the Supreme Court if he must.
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