Defense Overturns Bans on Civilian Catholic Priests During Shutdown

Pentagon overturns ban on civilian priests before reopening the government.

Former church of England Bishop John Broadhurst and others are ordained as Roman Catholic priests at Westminster Cathedral on Jan. 15, 2011, in London, England.
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The Defense Department on Wednesday responded to a lawsuit and overturned its decision barring some civilian Catholic priests from holding Mass during the government shutdown, just in time for all civilians to return to work.

[READ: Senate OKs Bill to Allow Military Chaplains During Shutdown]

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus approved contracts for civilian priests to return to their ministries on Wednesday at facilities without a uniformed Catholic priest to perform these duties, a Navy spokesperson tells U.S. News.

Catholic priests only make up 8 percent of the total active duty chaplains in the military, charged with tending to the roughly 25 percent of Catholics military-wide. This shortfall has prompted many bases and other facilities to hire civilian Catholic priests as contractors to celebrate Mass and perform the other duties of their military chaplain counterparts.

The disparity in numbers among the chaplain corps filled headlines and Catholic blog space during the recent shutdown.

Catholic advocacy group the Thomas More Law Center filed a lawsuit against Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia, which had – according to the rules of government furloughs – prohibited its Catholic contractor the Rev. Ray Leonard from celebrating Mass, while allowing the uniformed Protestant priests and ministers to continue their services.

[ALSO: Chaplains Campaign to Protect Religious Freedom in Military - for Christians]

TMLC says it will continue its lawsuit, despite the Pentagon's Wednesday decision regarding civilian priests.

"Allowing the Chapel doors to open and Father Leonard to fulfill his priestly responsibilities does not erase the Constitutional violations that occurred," said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the law center. "We don't want this to occur again the next time there is a government shutdown. Our lawsuit will continue."

Congress voted late Wednesday evening to fund the government temporarily and raise the debt ceiling until early 2014. It will debate those issues again at that time, which could recreate the shutdown crisis that lasted more than two weeks.

The law center also claimed in its suit that Catholic priests were threatened with arrest if they tried to continue their ministry.

A spokesman for Kings Bay says the adversarial tone of the incident was unfounded.

[MORE: Evangelical Groups Divided on Gay Marriage, Military Chaplains]

"We're not threatening to arrest anybody," said Public Affairs Officer Scott Bassett, before Congress agreed to end the shutdown. "This is a priest that we want to come and provide services to our community, but we don't have the funds to abide by the contract."

"Under the rules of furlough, you can't volunteer your job," he said.

Bassett says St. Mary's, the local Catholic church five miles away from the base, offered to host Catholic service members during the shutdown.

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