Lawsuit: Priest not allowed to celebrate Mass during shutdown - KMSP-TV

Lawsuit: Priest not allowed to celebrate Mass during shutdown

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ATLANTA -

A Georgia priest has filed suit against the U.S. Navy claiming that he was banned from giving Mass during the government shutdown.

Freedom of religion is an American freedom protected by the First Amendment. But during the government shutdown, that freedom was allegedly temporarily taken away at a chapel in south Georgia at the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.

"There was a sign on the door that said, ‘Due to the government shutdown, there will be no Mass until further notice,'" Richard Thomson of the Thomas More Law Center said via Skype from Ann Arbor, Mich.

Thomson said that Catholic priest, Father Ray Leonard, a civilian contract priest to the military, was shocked by the chapel shut down, especially after he spent time in China working with the poor who were denied their religious liberties.

"He never dreamed that coming back to the United States, he would be denied his religious freedom," Thomson said. "They threatened him with arrest had he entered the church."

On behalf of Father Leonard and a co-defendant parishioner, the center filed a lawsuit against the Departments of Defense and Navy and Secretaries of Defense and Navy. Within a day, the government responded.

"They indicated that they wanted Father Leonard to begin his Mass immediately the next day," Thomson.

Despite the victory, the Thomas More Law Center said the lawsuit will continue to make sure Father Leonard and other military chaplains won't be prevented from conducting religious services if there is another government shutdown.

"We hope to have a precedent that will say with a government shutdown under the Pay Our Military Act, priests and pastors still have a right to perform their duties," Thomson said.

Thomson says the lawsuit is focused squarely on Constitutional rights and is not about making money. He's asking for $1 in damages.

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