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A Catholic Navy chaplain who sued the government when it shut down last fall and locked him out of his chapel, preventing him from performing religious services for parishioners, now reports he’s facing retaliation for his actions.
According to the Thomas More Law Center, which is working with Father Ray Leonard of Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia, the retaliation “involves repeated government assertions that the employment contract under which [he] was working is no longer ‘valid.’”
WND reported at the time that the lawsuit was filed over the constitutionality of the government shutting down a chapel and ordering a priest not to respond to issues that might arise among the congregants.
The law center said later the government decided to allow the priest to resume celebrating Mass at Kings Bay. The permission came after federal officials stopped the Catholic services – even on a voluntary basis – because of the partial shutdown of the federal government that started Oct. 1.
The removal of the ban was confirmed both in a contact from three attorneys with the Department of Justice to attorney Erin Mersino of the Thomas More Law Center and through the chain of command to Father Ray Leonard, the law firm said.
The original closure order from the federal government included the threat of arresting the priest. As WND reported, the Thomas More Law Center filed the legal action over what it described as “an astonishing attack on religious freedom.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington on behalf of Leonard, a Catholic priest contracted to serve as base chaplain, and Fred Naylor, one of Leonard’s parishioners and a retired veteran with more than 22 years of service.
Leonard, a civilian serving on a contract basis, had served Tibetans in China for years.
“I was disallowed from performing public religious services due to the lack of religious freedom in China,” he said in an affidavit. “I never imagined that when I returned home to the United States, that I would be forbidden from practicing my religious beliefs as I am called to do and would be forbidden from helping and serving my faith community.”
The legal team reported that Mersino later was contacted by attorneys from Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department and told that Leonard could resume “all of his religious duties” and that the chapel would be open for “all Catholic activities.”
Now, according to the law center, the retaliation includes not only claims that Leonard’s contract is invalid but a requirement that he sign a new contract containing several pages of onerous new terms if he wants to be paid and a refusal to pay for services he had already performed.
Law center attorneys said they were addressing the issues in an amended complaint.
TMLC explained: “Father Leonard just returned to America after spending 10 years ministering to impoverished Tibetans in China. Consequently, withholding Father Leonard’s earnings for approximately two months left Father Leonard himself in an impoverished condition. Yet, he continued to minister to his congregation by scraping up enough money for food and rent payments for housing near the Naval Base which he serves.”
According to the amended complaint, one week after Leonard complained about his religious activities being restricted, “the government told [him] that his contract would no longer be considered ‘valid.’”
A new contract was suggested, with “five additional pages of far more onerous terms than his original contract” – even thought the original was recognized and affirmed by the Navy and the Department of Justice in subsequent documentation on Oct. 16, 2013.
He was paid in October and continued to work.
“However, in November, the government inexplicably refused to pay Father Leonard. The government’s withholding of income lasted from the beginning of November through the end of December.
After repeatedly denying Father Leonard’s payment, the Navy finally approved an invoice for payment at the end of December,” the legal team said.
Attorney Erin Mersino of TMLC charged that the government’s withholding of Leonard’s income is unconstitutional.
“The Petition Clause of the First Amendment protects individuals who challenge the unconstitutional actions of the government from retaliation,” she said. “The archdiocese for the military services confirmed that no other military chaplain contracts were under review or subjected to the same scrutiny as Father Leonard’s. Thus, due to the timing of the Navy’s actions and the information gleaned from the archdiocese for the military services, all signs point to Father Leonard being singled out and subjected to unlawful retaliation for bringing the government’s practices to light.”
Back on Oct. 4, with the government partly shut down because Barack Obama and the Senate refused to consider budget compromises suggested by Republicans in the House, the priest was ordered to stop performing duties as a chaplain.
He was told he could not even work voluntarily and could be arrested if he did. He then was locked out of his office and chapel and denied access to articles of his Catholic faith.
The case explains services of other Christian denominations at Kings Bay were allowed to continue throughout the shutdown.
“Although Father Leonard is for the moment being paid, based on the government’s pattern of inconsistent conduct, there is no guarantee that the government will not again claim the contract is invalid and refuse payment. Our amended complaint is necessary to seek the court’s protection from further government retaliation,” said Richard Thompson, president of TMLC.
WND has reported it’s not the only confrontation involving chaplains in the military.
Only a year earlier, two other military chaplains sued Eric Shinseki, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, for allegedly being harassed and drummed out of a training and placement program because of their Christian faith.
U.S. Navy chaplains Maj. Steven Firtko, U.S. Army (Retired) and Lt. Com. Dan Klender claim they were mocked, scolded and threatened for their faith while enrolled in the San Diego VA-DOD Clinical Pastoral Education Center program, which trains and distributes chaplains to military and VA medical centers in the San Diego area.
Read more at WND