UPDATE – July 9, 2020: The United States Navy has issued a new, clarified policy statement on the question of service members attending indoor religious services, which states that nothing about their guidance “should be construed to restrict attendance at places of worship where attendees are able to appropriately apply COVID-19 transmission mitigation measures, specifically social distancing and use of face covering.”
First Liberty Institute, which sent a letter on behalf of service members asking for an accomodation, issued a statement from Mike Berry, their General Counsel, saying that they are “grateful to Acting Undersecretary Slavonic and Navy leadership for righting this ship, and to Commander-in-Chief Trump for making religious liberty a priority. This is a major victory for the Constitution and for religious freedom within our military. This memo means tens of thousands of our brave service members will be able to safely and freely exercise their religious beliefs.”
The original article from Francis Lee, which pre-dates the clarification from the Under Secretary of the Navy follows:
On June 23, the Navy issued an order that banned sailors from attending off-base indoor religious services in order to effectively combat COVID-19. We must take into account that, prior to this announcement, the Navy had suspended most, if not all, on-base indoor religious services. Any sailor seeking spiritual nourishment through off-base indoor religious services would be “subject to adverse administrative and/or disciplinary action.”
Chaplain Col. Ron Crews, U.S. Army (ret.), executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, responded, “We are stunned that the Navy would issue this unlawful order.” Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese of Military Services released a press statement on July 4: “Upon receiving this information I immediately contacted the Navy Chief of Chaplains’ Office. They have been unable to offer any relief from these provisions. My attempt to contact the Chief of Naval Operations has not even been acknowledged.” The Navy directive, as originally designed, stands.
Given that society views all Christian denominations as co-equal and, to a greater extent, a mere hobby, and are able to continue its mission through remote means, one understands why the Navy opted to prohibit its sailors from attending off-base indoor religious services. If the public health goal is to minimize the spread of COVID-19 at all costs, then the decision to bar such religious services and substitute livestreamed online services makes logical sense. Indoor religious services are just another example of a large community gathering and, thus, ought to be included in the list of other prohibited activities by the Navy — dining in at restaurants, visiting your local barbershop, relaxing on a public beach, and shopping at non-essential commercial retail establishments.
If we lived in a purely secular nation, where religious liberty is not recognized as an inherent right given by God and the government has no legal duty to protect it, the restrictions implemented by the Navy are appropriate and justifiable. However, the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights ensures the free exercise of religion for all citizens of all faiths. This guarantee acknowledges that the worship of almighty God, in the public square and our private lives, fosters human flourishing, necessary for a free society and the survival of our republic. To constrain it would constrain the telos of our existence. Certainly, the Constitution does not pick sides in denominational arguments, but it does guarantee that every human being, consistent with who they are created to be, is free to exercise their faith.
At the onset of the pandemic, when state governments barred citizens from assembling to worship, even when congregants were confided in their vehicles during the service, but allowed those same citizens to freely wander and shop at liquor stores and grocery markets, Attorney General William Barr, representing the Justice Department and several churches adversely affected by the draconian state public health orders, voiced the timeless value of that too often neglected freedom, the free exercise of religion.
Attorney General Barr acknowledged that “the Constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances,” but he distinctly pointed out, “even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.” Therefore, Barr said in closing, “the government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”
If we examine the Navy directive, one observes that the freedom of assembly — albeit limited in numerical scope — is not completely banned, as in-residence gatherings that include no more than “ten guests that do not reside in the residence” are authorized while exercising “prudent precautions.” This allowance raises the question of why indoor religious services are not afforded the same luxury. If a Catholic priest invites ten guests to celebrate the Holy Mass at his parish, akin to his residence, does this not fit the social gathering criteria?
Abp. Broglio, in his response letter to the Navy directive, highlights another logical anomaly. Finding that the directive does not prohibit military family members from attending religious services, for this exceeds military legal jurisdiction, His Excellency responds, “Those family members return home where the military member lives. What is the protective effect of the prohibition for the Navy personnel? Zero.”
Although this order negatively affects sailors of all faith backgrounds, whether Christian or non-Christian, it disproportionately impacts the Catholic faith community. In his letter, His Excellency writes, “Participation in the Sunday Eucharist is life blood for Catholics. It is the source and summit of our lives and allows us to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.” For Catholics, the Eucharist, which is nearly always received in an indoor setting, is the ultimate source of spiritual strength and grace necessary to conquer our evil tendencies in this life and aid us on our journey to salvation. Our Lord Jesus Christ, in John 6:54, says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”
Consequently, the moral life of Catholic sailors unable to attend Mass and consume our Lord’s true body and blood will be wounded, leaving the soul vulnerable to the pernicious attacks by the devil, though God, in His benevolence and mercy, will continue to provide an abundance of spiritual graces. Nonetheless, job performance and unit morale will decrease; division and discord will increase; and the Navy’s core values of honor, courage, and commitment will decay. This is an extreme outlook but it is the natural outcome with the absence of an active spiritual life over an extended period of time.
On a more personal account, as a resident of Newport naval base, where on-base indoor religious services are suspended and the recent directive forbids me from attending off-base indoor religious services — both for an indeterminate period of time — I am stripped of my right and duty to worship my Lord and Savior. I find myself stuck in a moral dilemma: should I adhere to the general order and forgo the sacraments, considering that, like most American Catholics, I lived without the sacraments since mid-March, or should I disregard the order, face its administrative consequences, and participate in the celebration of the Holy Mass?
St. Mary’s Church in Newport, the nearest Catholic Church off-base and the venue of President John F. Kennedy’s wedding, is a mere three miles from base. Due to Rhode Island’s capacity restrictions, the church is currently operating at twenty-five percent. To accommodate additional safety precautions for its parishioners, the church requested all Mass attendees to sanitize their hands before entering, suspended the passing of the offering baskets, removed all missalettes, and amended the Eucharistic liturgy. With these health measures in place, there is no question that this church is well prepared for the new COVID-19 reality.
The Navy must enforce rules to safeguard its members from the health risks associated with COVID-19. Allowing sailors to attend off-base indoor religious services, while on-base indoor religious services are suspended, and exercise their freedom to worship will not compromise this position. As His Excellency noted, Catholic churches “have gone [to great lengths] in order to ensure social distancing in seating, receiving Holy Communion, and even adjust[ing] the liturgy to avoid any contagion.” “Should those who swear to protect and defend the Constitution be obliged to surrender their First Amendment Rights?”