Walter Reed Military Hospital Terminates Contract with Catholic Priests

April 14, 2023
Military Hospital Cancels Contract | First Liberty Institute

by Jorge Gomez • 6 min read

First Liberty sent a letter this week to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin expressing opposition to the Department of Defense’s (DoD) recent decision to end its longstanding relationship with the Holy Name College Friary, a community of Franciscan priests who’ve ministered and served military members and veterans for close to two decades.

On March 31, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, issued a “cease and desist” order to Holy Name College Friary. It directed Catholic priests to halt religious services on the center’s grounds, ahead of the church’s commemorations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Walter Reed terminated the contract for Catholic Pastoral Care and replaced it with a secular, for-profit defense contracting firm.

We sent the letter jointly with the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, an organization comprised of more than 30 ecclesiastical endorsing agencies. These agencies endorse more than 2,500 military chaplains, which is approximately 40% of the current armed forces chaplaincy.

First Liberty Director of Military Affairs Mike Berry said, “It is beyond inexcusable for the Biden Administration to deprive America’s sick and wounded service members the life-saving care they need just to save a few dollars. And to make this decision during Holy Week only pours salt into the wound.”

Our letter explains to the DoD that it is violating federal law and the Constitution. We remind the Department of its obligations:

“Excluding Catholics from the benefits of religious ministry is not only unsupported by the data, but also unconstitutional…The Constitution requires the Department to provide every service member access to chaplains of their own denomination.”

The DoD’s policy drew sharp criticism from religious and political leaders around the country. According to the New York Post, the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services accused Walter Reed of violating service members’ First Amendment rights. Certain core practices of the Catholic faith—such as the celebration of the Mass and the administration of Confession—can only be carried out by an ordained Catholic priest. The archdiocese points out that without Catholic priests, service members and veterans are being denied their right to practice their religion. The archdiocese also said the replacement firm will be unable to provide adequate spiritual care to service members.

“It is incomprehensible that essential pastoral care is taken away from the sick and the aged when it was so readily available,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio said in a statement.

“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,” he added.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and a group of Republican lawmakers are also demanding answers. Their letter to Secretary Austin didn’t mince words:

“We have made promises to our service members and veterans that if they take care of us, we will take care of them. This extends to not just providing quality healthcare at our nation’s military medical facilities, but by also providing the ability to freely practice their religion to those under the care at these facilities…The DoD’s actions to deny Catholic Pastoral Care from service members and veterans at Walter Reed goes against the morals, way of life and rights that make up the fabric of our great nation.”

Since America’s founding, faith and religious freedom have been inseparable from the military. From our Founders to our present leaders, our nation has always taken deliberate steps to meet the spiritual and religious needs of the men and women serving in uniform.

As our letter points out, we would never allow America’s warriors to march off to war without the physical means to accomplish their mission. Likewise, we cannot allow them to enter battle without the spiritual means to accomplish the mission.

Our service members and veterans deserve better. Not only is it unconstitutional to deprive service members access to Catholic priests, but it also defies logic. Chaplains and religious leaders are essential to our nation’s military preparedness. They provide our military heroes with the spiritual fortitude—the full armor—they need to serve and fight for our freedoms.

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