Gregory Slavonic, acting assistant secretary of defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, said on Wednesday that Navy orders should not “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.“
The new guidance came late Wednesday in a memo from Slavonic to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday, the news website Military.com reports.
Capt. Sarah Self-Kyler, public affairs officer for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said all service members assigned to Navy units “must continue to follow force health protection protocols, such as maintaining social distance and use of face coverings, should they choose to participate in religious services or visit places of worship.”
U.S. Air Force Major Daniel Schultz, who is currently assigned to a Navy command, on June 29 sought a religious accommodation. Schultz, who leads worship at his church, said a new order allowed house parties and protests but banned attendance at indoor church services.
Mike Berry, general counsel for the First Liberty Institute, had sent a letter on behalf of Schultz. He told Fox News the change was a “major victory” for the Constitution and religious freedom.
“This memo means tens of thousands of our brave service members will be able to safely and freely exercise their religious beliefs,” he said.
U.S. Reps. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Doug Lamborn, R-Colo. Had written to U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper objecting to the Navy's policy.
Collins welcomed the new clarification but called for further changes.
"For too long, the Pentagon has turned a blind eye as our military leaders have completely disregarded their obligation to protect the religious freedom of its service members," Collins said Thursday. "I look forward to sitting down with Secretary Esper and leaders at the Department of Defense to further discuss how we can protect religious freedom across all branches of our military.”
On July 5, Broglio criticized the orders and lamented that they also discouraged “civilian personnel, including families” from attending indoor church services.
Broglio called the Navy’s original order “particularly odious to Catholics,” because, he said, frequently there is no longer a Catholic program on naval installations due to budgetary constraints, or many installation chapels simply are still closed.
“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,” he said.
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Given the great efforts of Catholic churches to adjust seating, the reception of Holy Communion, and the liturgy to avoid contagion, Broglio had said, “I wonder why the Navy has decided to prohibit the faithful from something which even the Commander in Chief has called an essential service.”
Broglio's archdiocese serves some 1.8 million Catholics worldwide, including service members, civilian federal employees, and their families. About 25% of the military is Catholic, though only 6% of military chaplains are. There are under 500 ordained priests doing ministry work for the archdiocese, about 184 of whom are active-duty chaplains who are also commissioned officers.
While some news reports have highlighted dangers of contagion at religious services, other experts have emphasized that religious services are no more dangerous than similar events that take precautions recommended by health authorities.
A recent New York Times report linked religious facilities to more than 650 cases of Covid-19 infections contracted at nearly 40 churches and religious events since the epidemic arrived in the U.S. However, these make up a minuscule percentage of the more than 3.1 million confirmed cases in the country.