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On the eve of the a possible agreement to end the government shutdown, Navy and Air Force officials have begun bringing their contracted clergy back to work.
The Air Force Chief of Chaplains issued guidance today that all its contracted clergy would return to work, after the Secretary of the Air Force granted an exception.
The Secretary of the Navy signed off on reinstating the contracts last week, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. David Thames, of the Navy Chief of Chaplains office.
Thames said some clergy were back at work and conducting religious services this past Sunday, and officials expected all clergy would be back to conduct services by next Sunday. Some contracts required more review to make sure they followed federal acquisition regulations in the reinstatement. But not all contracted religious personnel will return; musicians and others have not received exceptions, he said.
The government shutdown on Oct. 1 did not affect active-duty chaplains. But clergy who are federal General Schedule and contracted workers initially were furloughed.
For example, 374 Catholic clergy are government civilians or contractors. Because of the chronic shortage of active-duty Catholic chaplains, some of the services have turned to hiring priests in government civilian and contractor positions. Clergy of some other faiths have been affected as well, because the Army, for example, has some federal government civilian clergy and contract workers of other faiths. The Navy has contracts for some rabbis. But the Catholic active-duty priest shortage generally has been more pronounced.
After the Pay Our Military Act was signed into law, chaplains who were government civilians and those whose contracts were funded into fiscal 2014 were allowed to return to work. But about 81 contracted chaplains still were not allowed to return, said Defense Department spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen. Those chaplains’ contracts and funding expired Sept. 30.
“We first tried to move as many active-duty chaplains around as we could,” Thames said. But when it became clear uniformed personnel could not be moved efficiently and effectively because of a clampdown on government travel, officials began the process of seeking an exception from the Secretary of the Navy early in the week of Oct. 7, he said.
The shutdown prompted a lawsuit filed this week by the Thomas More Law Center on behalf of the Catholic priest and one of his parishioners at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, Ga.
Chaplain Philip Mahalic, a contract priest at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas was one of the contract priests who has not been allowed to work. As of this afternoon, he said, he had not been contacted to return. Information on the status of Army contracted clergy was not immediately available from Army officials.
Mahalic, who retired from the Army as a colonel in July, returned to his same flock in San Antonio as a contract priest two weeks after he arrived in Indiana because they were without a priest.
But the government stalemate prevented him from conducting Catholic Mass, counseling, or any of the religious programs. Officials have “borrowed” another Army chaplain to conduct as many of the Masses as possible, he said, but he may have to cut back because he’s covering two jobs.
Other services, such as religious counseling, are being affected. “There’s a lot of walk-in counseling. But there’s not a priest there,” he said. “It’s really affected morale. Nobody can believe this is happening. I just hope and pray we can get back to normal ministry very soon. This is not good for soldiers, and not good for the country.”