Blog Post

Private: A Shutdown of Military Religious Liberty?

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

The recent budgetary conflict on Capitol Hill has grabbed headlines nationwide, and many people are feeling the harm of the federal government’s shutdown. While the facts are still fluid, some reports indicate that the shutdown is starting to affect the ability of our men and women in uniform to exercise their faith. The Archdiocese for the Military Services released a statement that the shutdown could force priests who are serving as government contractors (as opposed to those who are serving on active duty) to stay at home. Even priests that are willing to volunteer to provide religious support are apparently being told that they can’t. According to the Archdiocese, this means that some Masses have been cancelled for this Sunday. By contrast, military bases are still finding ways to keep base movie theaters running on schedule.

The reason these reports are troubling goes to the core of why our country has military chaplains in the first place: to provide for the free exercise rights of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Because service members face unique burdens on their religious exercise—such as being sent into armed conflict or moved to remote countries far from their faith communities—a restriction on chaplains is a restriction on the ability of service members to exercise their faith.

Thus, it is crucial that the government make provision for service members’ religious needs. To protect these fundamental human rights, the military chaplaincy was established even before our Nation’s founding. Chaplains go wherever service members go. They serve on military bases in the U.S. and around the world. They serve during peace at home, and during war on the front lines. They nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead. Among Army chaplains alone, nearly 300 have lost their lives in service to God and country.

Our Nation’s effort to accommodate service members’ religious needs has been remarkably successful and “follows the best of our traditions.” Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 314 (1952) (praising the State’s efforts to accommodate the “spiritual needs” of citizens). The Becket Fund has defended this fine tradition in the past, and stands ready to do so today.

If the recent reports are accurate, and if the Department of Defense is treating movie theaters as essential, but chaplains as superfluous, that is a problem. It suggests that certain sectors of the military may be devaluing service members’ constitutionally protected religious needs. Service members are risking their lives to protect our freedoms. The least we can do is protect theirs.