Oct. 17, 2013
After a mad scramble to pass legislation resolving the government shut down and extending a cap on federal borrowing authority, the House quickly agreed to one additional resolution late last night. In a nod to a lingering shutdown-related question pertaining to the role certain contract ministers and religious services employees play in our military, the House agreed unanimously to an amended version of H. Con. Res.58. This concurrent resolution expresses the hope of Congress that the Department of Defense (DOD) will categorize contracted priests and religious services providers as necessary for maintaining troop welfare and morale during any lapse in federal funding.
Almost two weeks ago, news broke about believers, including many Catholics, within the military lacking access to traditional religious services, religious facilities, counseling, and the Sacraments. Though legislation enacted at the beginning of the shutdown saga (Pay Our Military Act, Public Law No: 113-39) had instructed the DOD to pay active duty military personnel and to ensure that all services necessary for troop support were made available, DOD did not designate contracted religious service providers as essential for those support services. Because many installations rely on contracted ministers to meet the Constitutional requirement of providing for the free exercise rights of troops, this lapse by DOD meant that some soldiers had no way to practice or adhere to the confessional obligations of their faith.
As others have pointed out, the DOD’s failure to recognize contracted religious personnel as important for troop welfare is troubling since it seems to ignore the role religion plays in the daily life of many soldiers— while elevating access to base leisure facilities and entertainment options as more significant for aiding troop morale. In the high pressure environment of the military where unique stresses and challenges are faced on a daily basis, it’s critical that military personnel have access to the unique support structures of their faith. In fact, courts have held that in order to protect the First Amendment rights of military personnel to exercise their religion, chaplains must be furnished by the military. In cases where an active duty chaplain is not available, contracted religious staff help meet this obligation.
While last night’s reinstatement of federal funding has resolved the immediate issue of access to military installations for contract employees, a legal inquiry into the DOD’s designation may continue. What should guide lawmakers and Defense officials moving forward is a renewed commitment to protecting the totality of troop welfare and wellbeing—including safeguarding the ability of military personnel to live out their personal religious belief and practice by having continuous access to ministers, priests, and religious staff.