A Catholic Navy chaplain barred from practicing his religion during the recent government shutdown is now the target of retaliation by the federal government, according to an amended complaint filed by his attorneys.
Rev. Ray Leonard filed a lawsuit in October against the Department of Defense and the Navy after he was threatened with arrest if he performed mass, administered the sacraments, or entered the chapel at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia during the shutdown.
Three DOJ attorneys contacted Erin Mersino, his attorney at the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), which is handling the case, a day after the suit was filed and indicated Leonard could resume all religious duties and the chapel would be reopened for Catholic services.
A week later, on Oct. 21, he was told his DOD contract would no longer be considered valid.
The government has withheld the priest’s pay ever since and it is also asking Leonard to sign another contract with additional pages that include “onerous terms,” according to the TMLC.
His original contract serving as Navy chaplain is valid from October 2013 through September 2014, and it was signed and agreed upon by both parties.
Mersino said his contract is “the only one being reviewed at this time.”
“No other military chaplain contracts were under review or subjected to the same scrutiny as Father Leonard’s,” Mersino said the Archdiocese for the Military Service confirmed.
Leonard was denied pay for the last two months and suffered financial hardship. After multiple requests by TMLC, he was paid on Dec. 23 for his work performed for November.
It remains to be seen if Leonard will be paid for December.
Currently Leonard is now “performing services pursuant to his original contract,” Mersino said.
“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,” said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the TMLC, in a statement. “Our amended complaint is necessary to seek the court’s protection from further government retaliation.”
Mersino detailed the priest’s suffering as a result of the government’s actions.
“Father Leonard is a very kind and a wonderful person, and it was very difficult for him without notice not to receive pay. He doesn’t live lavishly—and lives very humbly,” Mersino said.
Leonard lives in an apartment off the base, and had to pay rent and car payments.
Leonard serves approximately 300 Catholics on the base who were also shut out from practicing their faith.
Services of other Christian denominations on the base were allowed to continue during the shutdown.
Leonard explained his situation in an affidavit.
“I am called to serve the military. Our brave servicemen and women face great stresses,” said Leonard. He cited higher rates of depression and suicide amongst the military and also higher rates of divorce compared with the general population.
“I wish to offer spiritual encouragement, prayer, help, and assistance to our military. There is a need to support the military with a religious and faithful community,” Leonard said.
Leonard offered to work without pay during the shutdown on a volunteer basis but was told he would face arrest if he attempted to enter the chapel.
“For Father Leonard, the lawsuit is very much about religious liberty,” Mersino said.
Mersino said that due to the timing of the government’s actions, “all signs point to Father Leonard being singled out and subjected to unlawful retaliation for bringing the government’s practices to light.”
“All of a sudden, the government is now saying his contract is not valid. All of a sudden the government is withholding his pay,” she said.
“He wanted to volunteer during the shutdown,” she said. “It seems very much a punishment for bringing the lawsuit.”
The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment.
Leonard could not be reached for comment as of press time, but his sworn statements detail his struggles with religious freedom while serving in China and now in the United States.
“I spent the last 10 years in China serving the Tibetans and the world's most poor,” Leonard said. “I have tried to help those in poverty with my acts of kindness and by trying to do good deeds for others.”
“In China, I was disallowed from performing public religious services due to the lack of religious freedom in. 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,” Leonard said.
The DOJ has requested an additional 60 days to respond to the amended complaint. The court has ordered the DOJ to respond by March 3.