(CN) - A contract priest for the Navy who was paid and continued to work during the government shutdown does not have a case under the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled.
The Rev. Ray Leonard, a Catholic priest at the Naval Submarine Base in Kings Bay, Ga., and Fred Naylor, one of his parishioners, had filed suit on Oct. 14, 2013, against the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Secretary of Defense.
They alleged that the government had prevented Leonard from performing his duties during the government shutdown in violation of their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment.
Though the Wednesday decision on his case describes Leonard as a chaplain, a spokeswoman for the Navy's Chief of Chaplains Office noted that the court used the wrong language in describing the contract priest. In keeping with that office's request, this article uses the contractor designation in place of the decision's chaplain language.
The government, which had entered its first partial government shutdown
in 17 years on Oct. 1, told Leonard on Oct. 15 that he and other contracted civilian clergy could continue working. Leonard signed a contract "stating that, while the government did not presently have funds to pay him, he would be able to continue to perform his duties during Fiscal Year 2014" and would be paid when funds were made available, according to the ruling.
By Oct. 16, the shutdown was over, and the Navy soon resumed regular operations including the payment of civilian contracted clergy like Father Leonard.
The procurement director for the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay then discovered that Leonard never signed the underlying contract "for religious services at Kings Bay for Fiscal Year 2014," and that the contact omitted provisions required by the Federal Acquisition Regulation. Leonard refused to sign the contract, though, claiming the terms were more "onerous" those to which he had on Oct. 15.
Though the Navy initially told Leonard it would not pay him unless he signed the contract, it reversed its decision. It then rejected a purchase order Leonard submitted on grounds that he had not signed the contract, but then reversed that decision too.
Leonard and Naylor amended their complaint to include a claim that defendants' actions constituted unlawful retaliation.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle dismissed the case as moot on Wednesday.
"The problem for plaintiffs, however, is that the need for this relief effectively ended when the shutdown did," Huvelle wrote. "After the conclusion of the shutdown Father Leonard was permitted to perform his job for Fiscal Year 2014. Likewise, once Father Leonard was no longer forbidden from performing his job, plaintiff Fred Naylor regained access to all the religious activities that he sought to participate in despite the fact that no court had issued declaratory or injunctive relief."
In attempting to salvage their claims, Leonard and Naylor alleged that the case falls under the "voluntary cessation." Since the government shutdown did not end because of the lawsuit, however, Huvelle deemed this exception inapplicable.
The ruled also denied that the claims "are justiciable on the grounds that '[d]efendants cannot promise that both Houses of Congress will agree upon their next budget and a shutdown will be avoided [a]nd ... that the Anti-Deficiency Act will not be imposed again.'"
"While most government shutdowns - including the 17-day shutdown at issue in this case - are short in duration, it does not necessarily follow that agency action take during these shutdowns is sufficiently capable of repetition for purposes of establishing a justiciable claim," Huvelle wrote.
Leonard's retaliation claim in the amended complaint also fails because he suffered no ongoing injury to bring the claim. The priest admitted in the amended complaint that the actual harm against him occurred in the past, according to the ruling.