A Catholic chaplain at Offutt Air Force Base who had been forced to stay away because of the partial government shutdown now is set to return to the pulpit.
The chaplain's return follows an order from Air Force headquarters Wednesday morning and was not directly related to the votes in Congress later Wednesday to fund the government until early next year, allowing all furloughed federal employees to return to work.
The absence of the Rev. Dave Reeson had caused members of Offutt's Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic congregation to scramble to cover weekly Mass, sacraments and religious education programs.
It was part of a militarywide problem that has led to the cancellation of Masses the past two weekends at about 50 installations worldwide, said Taylor Henry, a spokesman for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, which supervises more than 600 Roman Catholic military chaplains. Masses continued at Offutt during the shutdown.
“This sad state of affairs is contrary to our nation's most basic principles,” said John Schlageter, the archdiocese's general counsel, in a statement posted on the organization's website.
But Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said that chaplains were treated the same as other furloughed government employees.
“Military chaplains were not ordered to stop ministering, and chapels had the option to seek help from active-duty chaplains,” he said.
About 40 percent of the Catholic chaplains are active-duty military officers — including Capt. Brian Klingele, Offutt's assigned priest, who has been deployed overseas for four months. The rest are either civilian government employees or work as government contractors, Henry said.
Active-duty chaplains continued to work during the partial shutdown along with other uniformed members of the armed services, Christensen said. Pastors who are government employees or working under continuing contracts returned to work last week when Secretary Chuck Hagel exempted most Defense Department workers from furloughs. But Hagel's order didn't cover contracts that expired Sept. 30.
At Offutt, Reeson had been filling in under a government contract during Klingele's deployment. He was the base's Catholic chaplain from 1981 to 1995 and has been serving the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System since last year.
|AT WAR, AT HOME|
|Find more World-Herald coverage of the Nebraskans and Iowans who have served our country at our At War, At Home page.|
But his contract expired Sept. 30. When the partial government shutdown began Oct. 1, Reeson was willing to work for free. But that is forbidden under an 1870 law, the Antideficiency Act, which prevents contractors from providing services during a government shutdown.
“They simply can't work until Congress authorizes funding,” Henry said.
Reeson and Peggy Hoffman, the Catholic Coordinator for Offutt's Our Lady of Peace congregation, worked quickly to find substitute priests to fill the gaps, said Lt. Col. David DePinho, the 55th Wing's head chaplain.
“From my perspective, Peggy made it easy,” DePinho said. “She had her network of priests, folks that were happy to help out. If she hadn't had that, it would have been tougher.”
Hoffman said Reeson agreed to fill in — at no cost — for pastors at nearby St. Mary and St. Matthew parishes while those priests ministered to the community of about 450 faithful at Our Lady of Peace.
“We have a really strong Catholic community,” she said. “We were very fortunate. We tried to maintain continuity.”
The substitute priests also heard parishioners' confessions, an important part of Catholic religious practice, on Sundays instead of the customary Saturday. One woman complained anonymously to base officials and to The World-Herald that her children were turned away from confession last weekend.
DePinho said that happened because Defense Department regulations require a lengthy background check before any adult may be in a room alone with a child — and only then if the door has a window.
The substitute priest hadn't completed that check, DePinho said. He offered to hear the children's confession in an open room with another adult present but out of earshot. The woman declined, DePinho said.
“The government has a very strict policy,” he said. “You can't be in complete privacy, in any context.”
Wednesday's order, from the Air Force's senior chaplain, Brig. Gen. Bobby Page, said the expired contracts could be renewed under rules passed by Congress. The move came just two days after the Rev. Ray Leonard, a furloughed contract priest at Naval Submarine Base King's Bay in Georgia, joined one of his parishioners in filing suit against Hagel, the Navy and the Defense Department.
The Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., a law firm that according to its website is “dedicated to the defense and promotion of the religious freedom of Christians,” is representing Leonard and the parishioner.
The suit, filed in federal court in the District of Columbia, argues that the closing of the chapel for Catholic services violates their First Amendment freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
It seeks to permanently stop the Pentagon from using the Antideficiency Act to prevent future lockouts of contract chaplains.
“We're looking at permanent relief so this doesn't happen again,” said Erin Mersino, Leonard's attorney. “We want to see a change in the law.”