In a move that has stunned Catholics and religious freedom advocates, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. issued a “cease and desist order” just before Holy Week to a community of Franciscan Catholic priests from Holy Name College that had been serving servicemembers and their families at the center for almost two decades.
On April 7, the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services (AMS) announced that Walter Reed issued the order on March 31, just as the most sacred week of the year for Christians was beginning. AMS noted that the contract for providing Catholic Pastoral Care was instead awarded to a secular defense contracting firm that does not have the capacity to offer Catholic pastoral services such as Mass and confession, which can only be administered by an ordained priest. AMS further pointed out that without the services of the Franciscan priests, there would be only one other Catholic priest assigned to Walter Reed, an Army chaplain who is currently “in the process of separating from the Army.”
Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy P. Broglio was perplexed by Walter Reed’s decision and expressed concern that it would infringe on the ability of Catholic servicemembers and their families to freely exercise their faith while at the center.
“It is incomprehensible that essential pastoral care is taken away from the sick and the aged when it was so readily available,” he said. “This is a classic case where the adage ‘if it is not broken, do not fix it’ applies. I fear that giving a contract to the lowest bidder overlooked the fact that the bidder cannot provide the necessary service. I earnestly hope that this disdain for the sick will be remedied at once and their First Amendment rights will be respected.”
Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill reacted even more forcefully, saying that the order was a direct attack on the First Amendment.
“This is an unconscionable attack on Christian service members and the First Amendment by [President Joe] Biden, [Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin, and [Joint Chiefs Chair General Mark] Milley,” tweeted Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.) on Saturday. “The House must investigate why DOD did this, especially on Holy Week!”
AMS said that despite numerous appeals to Walter Reed by their general counsel Elizabeth A. Tomlin to reinstate the priests at least through Holy Week, they received no response from the medical center.
“Especially during Holy Week, the lack of adequate Catholic pastoral care causes untold and irreparable harm to Catholics who are hospitalized and therefore a captive population whose religious rights the government has a constitutional duty to provide for and protect,” AMS stated.
This latest move by the military under the Biden administration fits a pattern of what many experts see as a steady erosion of religious freedom for those working for the armed forces.
After the administration instituted a COVID vaccine mandate for all military personnel in August of 2021, most of the branches granted a tiny fraction of the religious exemptions that were requested before the mandate was rescinded in December 2022. Only 0.9% of religious exemption requests were granted in the Army, zero were granted in the National Guard, and 0.8% were granted in the Air Force.
Additionally, in September of last year, the administration issued a rule mandating that Veterans Affairs medical facilities carry out abortions as well as provide abortion counseling. When a Christian nurse practitioner requested a religious accommodation on two occasions from having to participate in abortions, she was denied. She is now filing suit against the hospital for placing a substantial burden on her sincerely held religious beliefs.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) William G. Boykin, a 36-year Army veteran who currently serves as executive vice president at Family Research Council, said Walter Reed’s cease and desist order showed harmful neglect of religious freedom.
“The First Amendment states that ‘Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’” he told The Washington Stand. “The U.S. military should be held accountable for violating the intent of the First Amendment at the same time that drag queen programs are acceptable.”
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.
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