(See Update below.)
When Fr. Ray Leonard arrived to say Sunday Mass at the base chapel on Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base he got an unwelcome surprise: the doors were locked. Signs on the door sent a clear message to Catholic military personnel and their families: “Shutdown: No Catholic service till further notice.”
Fr. Leonard, who spent ten years in China and experienced that government’s hostility towards religion, sees troubling parallels. “This is our church. Catholics have an expectation and obligation to attend Mass and we were told, ‘no, you can’t go to church this week’…My parishioners were upset. They were angry and dismayed. They couldn’t believe that in America they’d be denied access to Mass by the government.”
According to a press release from the Congressional office of Kansas Representative Tim Huelskamp, Fr. Leonard came as a volunteer, for one simple purpose: to serve his flock.
But the Emperor in the White House said no. It didn’t matter that Fr. Leonard’s presence wouldn’t cost the military one dime.
President Obama has his priorities—and religious freedom isn’t one of them.
Consider how the First Amendment is being sliced and diced during the shutdown. Catholics are not allowed to attend Sunday Mass, in their own Church with their own volunteer-priest, on a military base, because of the shutdown. (It’s only freedom of religion, after all.) But liberals are allowed to rally for immigration reform on the otherwise-closed National Mall, in spite of the shutdown. (It’s freedom of speech, after all!) When Park Service spokesman Michael Litterst explained that “groups will be granted access to the park for First Amendment activities,” what he really meant was that, for the Obama Administration, the ‘First Amendment’ means ‘free speech and assembly,’ but not ‘freedom of religion.’
Consider also President Obama’s near-silence on international issues of religious freedom. In his recent speech to the United Nations, President Obama criticized Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi for failing to govern in a “fully inclusive” manner and urged him to recognize that “true democracy” requires “respect for minority rights and the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and a strong civil society.”
He left out religious freedom.
It’s hard to believe that the omission is accidental. Egypt’s Coptic Christians can testify that the United States’ indifference to the plight of Egypt’s Christians has meant that religious persecution is “tolerated and even encouraged” by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood— with devastating results.
As I’ve written elsewhere, President Obama habitually gives short shrift to religious freedom, filing it away as an occasional subset of “minority rights” or “freedom of speech,” unless it proves useful to progressives’ social justice campaigns to fire up some old time ‘religion.’
But religion for its own sake? Bah. Who needs it? Certainly not Catholic soldiers and their families.
Only a few short weeks ago, the White House touted its support for religious liberty, in response to a petition seeking protection for non-believers serving in the military: “The Obama Administration strongly supports every American’s right to religious freedom. This support extends equally both to the many members of our armed forces who hold religious beliefs and to those members of the military who do not hold such beliefs.”
Maybe they forgot what it said.
UPDATE: LAWSUIT ALLEGING VIOLATION OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM CONTINUES IN SPITE OF GOVERNMENT REVERSAL
Just before the shutdown ended, the government re-opened the Catholic chapel and reversed the ban on Catholic Masses at Kings Bay, in response to a federal lawsuit filed against the Department of Defense alleging an unconstitutional bar on the free exercise of religion. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Fr. Leonard and a Kings Bay parishioner, will continue, according to the Thomas More Center, because “Allowing the Chapel doors to open and Father Leonard to fulfill his priestly responsibilities does not erase the Constitutional violations that occurred. We don’t want this to occur again the next time there is a government shutdown.” See the press release here.