Furloughed military priest claims shutdown win over Obama

A Catholic priest who sued the Obama administration after being furloughed and threatened with arrest has won the right to return to work, according to his lawyers.

The Rev. Ray Leonard sued the administration Monday after the Kings Bay naval base in Georgia said Catholic services on the base were being suspended due to the government shutdown. 

The Thomas More Law Center, which describes itself as a group that defends the religious freedom of Christians, represented Leonard in the suit.

According to the Center, the Department of Defense told Leonard in early October that he was nonessential and would be furloughed because he was a contract priest. Later, when Leonard offered to volunteer his services during the shutdown, he was threatened with arrest.

The Center says this decision smacked of bias against Catholics, as Protestant services were allowed to continue.

"The actions of the federal government were a blatant attack on religious liberty," said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Center. "I would never have imagined that our government would ever bar Catholic priest from saying Mass under threat of arrest and prevent Catholics from participating in their religious exercises."

But on Wednesday, three attorneys from the Department of Justice contacted the group and "indicated that Father Leonard could resume all of his religious duties," according to the Center.

That decision was likely made much easier for the administration, as it was known by Wednesday afternoon that Congress would pass legislation to end the government shutdown. However, the Center said it would press on with its lawsuit to ensure permanent protection for Leonard and other priests in case of another shutdown.

"We don't want this to occur again the next time there is a government shutdown," Thompson said. "Our lawsuit will continue."

Under the bill approved Wednesday, the government is funded only through mid-January, and House and Senate negotiators are hoping to reach a 2014 spending agreement by mid-December.

The Department of Justice had not responded to a request for comment as of Thursday afternoon.