The Archdiocese for the Military Services released a statement last week that the Department of Defense was citing the shutdown to force Catholic priests who provide military religious support as government contractors (as opposed to those serving on active duty) to stay at home. Even contract priests that are willing to volunteer to provide religious support are apparently being told that they can’t. According to the Archdiocese, this means that some Masses were cancelled last Sunday, and that future Masses will also be cancelled. By contrast, military bases still found ways to keep base movie theaters running on schedule and military college football teams on the field last weekend, and at least some bases have now generally returned to normal operations.
The military appears to have partially addressed the problem by allowing some of the contract chaplains to return to work. But that raises two related questions. First, why only some; why not all? Second, why was this ever even a problem? Congress passed, and the president signed, a military-specific funding bill the day before the shutdown started. That bill specifically provided funding for Department of Defense contractors who “are providing support” to active duty troops. Which is precisely what the contract priests were doing, and what at least some were willing to continue to do for free. So why were they forced to stop providing religious support?
The basic reason that this situation is so troubling goes to the core of why our country has military chaplains in the first place: to provide for the free exercise rights of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Because service members face unique burdens on their religious exercise—such as being sent into armed conflict or moved to remote countries far from their faith communities—a restriction on chaplains is a restriction on the ability of service members to exercise their faith.
Thus, it is crucial that the government make provision for service members’ religious needs. And to protect service members’ fundamental human right to meet those needs, the military chaplaincy was established even before our Nation’s founding. Chaplains go wherever service members go. They serve on military bases in the U.S. and around the world. They serve during peace at home, and during war on the front lines. They nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead. Among Army chaplains alone, nearly 300 have lost their lives in service to God and country.
Our nation’s effort to accommodate service members’ spiritual needs has been remarkably successful and “follows the best of our traditions.” Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 314 (1952). The Becket Fund has defended this fine tradition in the past, and stands ready to do so today.
But if the Department of Defense is treating movie theaters as essential and chaplains as superfluous, that tradition is being disrespected and undermined. Further, it indicates that certain sectors of the military may be devaluing service members’ constitutionally protected religious needs. Fortunately, Congress does not appear to have made that same mistake: This weekend, the House of Representatives voted Sunday 400 to 1 to urge the Department of Defense to allow contract priests to resume meeting military religious needs.
Service members are risking their lives to protect our freedoms. The least we can do is protect theirs.
Blomberg is legal counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.