By now, most Americans are familiar with the recent government shutdown. Who is to blame for the shutdown is hotly debated by the mainstream media and both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress. It has been impossible to turn on the television without witnessing the “mudslinging” between the parties as to who is at fault.
As a result of the government shutdown, there have been many closures announced by the Obama administration that have come into question. Many war memorials, parks, and other federally-funded sites have been ordered closed all to the chagrin of the American public.
However, a new closure announcement from this administration may be a violation of the First Amendment rights of those serving in the United States Military. John Schlageter, general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, a provider of Catholic Priests for the military service members, both in the United States and abroad, indicated that these priests, many of whom are contract priests (non-governmental or civilians) will not be allowed to celebrate mass on military bases during the government shutdown. The result would be that those in the military who are unable to leave the base and attend services elsewhere would be denied the right to practice their faith.
The First Amendment, as it pertains to religion, prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion (emphasis added)…
Schlageter argues that while a military service person’s rights are different by virtue of military law, “Military personnel enjoy, like all Americans, the First Amendment guarantee of the “Free Exercise” of their particular religious faith. But because military personnel are considered a “captive audience,” the laws of our country require the government to provide access to that faith…” He goes on to say, “This all becomes very clear when one thinks of a military family stationed in Bahrain or Japan. They cannot walk down the street to the local synagogue, church, mosque, etc.”
Others may argue that this most recent announcement from the administration is nothing more than an attempt to use the military to hold the Republicans blameworthy for yet another closure due to the government shutdown. The Republicans would most likely argue, however, that in addition to casting blame, this latest action taken by the Obama administration is clearly an attack on the military’s First Amendment Rights.
The Republicans raised concerns in July 2013 that religious expression in the military is “under attack” and offered the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that includes language which states that, “Except in cases of military necessity, the Armed Forces shall accommodate the beliefs, actions, and speech of service members.” This act expands protections to include religious “actions and speech.” Not surprisingly, the Obama administration raised concerns, citing a Commander’s inability to appropriately address conflicts in the rank should it become law.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz, also raised concerns about the military’s free exercise of religion and the Obama administration’s perceived stance, when he tweeted that “These priests have 1st Amendment right to practice faith. Hope POTUS (President of the United States) takes possible criminal penalties off the table.”
What is interesting to note, is that these priests are facing arrests if they celebrate mass in churches located on military bases and are not permitted to work – not even to volunteer, according to John Schlageter. A glance at the website for the Archdiocese for the Military Services indicates that this organization does not receive funding from the federal government for providing priests to the military and therefore, would not be causing the government to spend any funds during the shutdown. Also, even if they were receiving government funding, which they are not, they are not even allowed to volunteer their services in order to assist the military members in practicing their faith.
In the meantime, the golf course, at Andrews Air Force Base, where President Obama plays golf, remains open and it has been reported, according to a Park Ranger employed by the federal government, that he along with others were “told to make life as difficult for people as we can.”
What steps should now be taken, if any, by these priests? These priests are under civil law but they are also charged with following God’s law. One look at Romans 13, tells Christians that they must obey state authorities unless there is a law or command that would violate God’s Word (Exodus 1:17, 20 and Daniel 1). It appears that these priests will be faced with having to decide whether this order from the administration constitutes a command that violates God’s Word or law. What will they conclude? Only time will tell.
Susan Knowles is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, former Family Law Attorney, and author of a political fiction, “Freedom’s Fight: A Call To Remember,” available at Amazon.
“No Sunday Mass at Some Military Bases If Government Shutdown Continues”
“Conservatives say religious freedom is ‘under attack’ in military”
Archdiocese for the Military Services, Development Office
“Troops Forage for Food While Golfers Play On in Shutdown”
“Park Service ranger: ‘We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can. It’s disgusting.'”
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