Claim: Catholic priests may not conduct religious services on U.S. military bases during the federal government shutdown.
TRUE: Contract priests are prohibited from conducting religious functions on U.S. military bases during the federal government shutdown.
FALSE: President Obama ordered that military priests be arrested for holding Mass during the federal government shutdown.
Example:[Collected via e-mail, September 2013]
Did President Obama really order that military priests be arrested for saying the Mass during the government shutdown?
Origins: One of the many issues affecting both the public and government workers during the federal government shutdown of October 2013 is the Antideficiency Act, a piece of legislation originally passed back in 1870 that prohibits the federal government from incurring any monetary obligations for which Congress has not appropriated funds. Under the terms of that legislation, federal employees may not perform their job duties during a government shutdown (save for certain legally exempted activities, such as "emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property") even if they volunteer to do so on an unpaid basis, and federal workers who violate the Antideficiency Act may be subject to disciplinary action (such as suspension or job termination), fines, and imprisonment.
The application of the Antideficiency Act is open to a fair amount of interpretation, however. For example, does it violate the terms of the Antideficiency Act for federal workers to check their cell phones or e-mail for work-related messages during the government shutdown, even if they don't act on those messages? Executive branch departments
have had to review and decide what government activities they believe may or may not be allowed during the shutdown without running afoul of the Antideficiency Act.
Due to a confluence of circumstances, one group affected by the Antideficiency Act are some Catholic priests. Due to a chronic shortage of active duty Catholic military chaplains in the U.S. armed forces, the Department of Defense has had to hire about 234 priests from outside the military (variously known as contract priests, GS priests, or non-active duty priests) to perform Catholic services and other religious functions on U.S. military bases. Although active duty military personnel (including chaplains) are exempt from the Antideficiency Act, government contract workers are not, so contract priests may not perform religious services or otherwise minister to Catholics on U.S. military bases during the government shutdown, even on a volunteer basis.
Therefore, a subset of Catholic military personnel who are stationed at bases that have no active duty Catholic chaplains and are instead being staffed by contract priests will have to go elsewhere for religious services for the duration of the shutdown — if they wish to attend Mass or take part in a baptism, for example, they will have to go to local churches or other off-base locations for those functions. (U.S. military personnel stationed in some parts of the world may not be able to find local English-speaking priests, or any priests at all, however.)
It isn't true, however, that "President Obama ordered that military priests be arrested for saying the Mass during the government shutdown." As explained above, the issue with contract priests in the military was created by the intersection of the Antideficiency Act and a shortage of active duty Catholic military chaplains, two factors which have neither been instigated by nor are under the control of President Obama. And although imprisonment is technically one of the potential punishments spelled out in the law for federal workers who violate the Antideficiency Act, President Obama has not ordered that penalty to be applied to contract priests or any other federal employees, and that penalty is unlikely to be applied to anyone save for the most egregious of violations.
Update: On 5 October 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure (by a 400 to 1 vote) in favor of allowing military chaplains to minister on Sunday without violating the Antideficiency Act. The Senate has not yet taken up the bill.