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Do Catholic Priests in the Military 'Risk Being Arrested' if They Minister and Hold Mass During the Gov't Shutdown?


"During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base..."

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In an op-ed published on Thursday, John Schlageter, general counsel at Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, a group that oversees military the services provided by the Catholic Church in the U.S., made some startling claims about how the government shut-down could impact priests -- and the allegations are chilling.

According to Schlageter, Catholic priests who are contracted risk being arrested if they work during the shutdown.

Unlike active duty faith leaders, these contracted workers are described by CatholicVote.org, a conservative advocacy group, as, "paid by the federal government as independent contractors in places where there aren’t enough active-duty priests to meet the needs of Catholics in military service."

The attorney also warned of the detrimental impact that the shutdown could have on Catholics in the ranks.

"If the government shutdown continues through the weekend, there will be no Catholic priest to celebrate Mass this Sunday in the chapels at some U.S. military installations where non-active-duty priests serve as government contractors," writes Schlageter.

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The lawyer went on to discuss why these contracted employees are relied upon: There's a shortage of Catholic priests and a resulting need to contract additional religious leaders to ensure availability when an active duty Catholic chaplain isn't free or on-site.

"With the government shutdown, many GS and contract priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide are not permitted to work -- not even to volunteer," he continued. "During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so."

The arrest claim is a bold one -- but is it true? Recently, Politico did report that furloughed federal workers could be fired for using their BlackBerry phones during the shutdown. One warning noted that there could be penalties for conducting any work outside of the office during this time.

"Due to legal requirements, working in any way during a period of furlough (even as a volunteer) is grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment," read a recent letter from the House Administration Committee to nonessential employees. "To avoid violating this prohibition, we strongly recommend that you turn your BlackBerrys off for the duration of the furlough."

Technically, this would translate over to faith leaders as well. As for events that might be scheduled on military bases -- baptisms, weddings, etc. -- unless a priest who is not contracted is found, Schlageter said that the event would potentially have to be canceled.

But if these priests conducted religious events anyway, would they really risk arrest? That remains to be seen, but the impact of the shutdown is already being felt among Catholic clergy.

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In a statement to CatholicVote.org, Schlageter provided additional details about some of the specific ramifications the shutdown is having on people of faith:

There will be Mass at Quantico because of the terms of service of the contract for the priest at Quantico.  Nonetheless, 3 Masses have been cancelled at local Fort Belvoir. ... In one situation a couple that is to be married at an Air Force Base this Saturday and did all of their preparation with a GS priest will now be married by an active duty priest who is being taken in from somewhere else.  This means that the priest that the couple got to know over the past few months will not be able to witness their marriage.  One priest in Virginia Beach will be celebrating Mass in a local park off base.

We are also learning that some chapel musicians will not be able to play at Sunday Mass during the furlough.

If you're wondering why government workers (contracted priests, included) aren't allowed to volunteer during the shutdown, Slate has an explanation. The reasoning is predicated upon the Anti-Deficiency Act of 1884. Here's more:

The basic logic of the Anti-Deficiency Act is to say that executive branch officials are not allowed to undertake actions that create financial obligations for the federal government that they have not received congressional funding for. The Navy, in other words, can't order up a bunch of ships and then when the bill comes due tell Congress that it needs to appropriate the money to pay for the ships lest the entire creditworthiness of the American military collapse.

Prevailing doctrine didn't always hold that the Anti-Deficiency Act applies in this way. Back in the 1970s there were a whole series of appropriations lapses driven by House/Senate disagreement about abortion. What happened then was basically what happens now with "essential" workers—people keep doing their jobs, it's just that they don't get paid. Then when Congress worked out its disagreement, it would also pony up the money for back pay. In a sense this made appropriations lapses "too easy," to the Justice Department changes the interpretation and now federal workers can't work. Unless, that is, they're essential in which case they must work.

TheBlaze reached out to Lt. Col. Laurel P. Tingley at the Air Force Press Desk to ask how regulations will impact contracted priests and to see if there's any merit to the arrest claim.

"Any civilian employee who volunteers their time to the government while furloughed is violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, as is any supervisor who allows an employee to do so," she said in an e-mail. "The ADA provides for disciplinary action for individuals who are found in violation."

We followed up to check if arrest is one of the potential ramifications and we're waiting for clarification.

Photo Credit: ShutterStock.com



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