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Enyart: Why I voted against exempting religious programs from shutdown

Oct. 7, 2013 - 11:52AM   |  
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A retired Army National Guard general who cast a lone vote on Saturday against a House bill to exempt military religious programs for the government shutdown says he was voting against “hypocrisy.”

On a 407-1 vote, the House passed a nonbinding resolution on Saturday morning urging the Defense Department to fully restore religious programs hurt by the government shutdown.

The partial shutdown does not directly affect military chaplains, but it was affecting religious programs. The Defense Department depends on federal civilians and contractors to lead some religious programs because of a shortage of chaplains, particularly Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis.

Saturday afternoon’s Pentagon announcement that most furloughed federal civilian workers were being recalled to work will partly fix the problem, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said decisions about recalling contractors are still being worked out.

Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Ill., a retired major general who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, is taking heat for being the only person to vote against the religion resolution, but he defended his vote.

“Of course I want chapels open, but what about our military families who have no place to send their children and are forced to buy family essentials off base?,” Enyart said in a statement. “Day care centers on military bases are closed. Commissaries on military bases are closed. Military support workers are furloughed.”

“The bill I voted against is a prime example of the hypocrisy we see every day in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “This bill did nothing for the troops. All it does is provide political cover for people who won’t do their jobs, and that’s the Congress.”

The resolution, H. Con. Res. 58, has been sent to the Senate, which has not scheduled a vote.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, said chaplain shortages led to the cancellation of many Catholic masses, plus baptisms and weddings. Wilson said federal civilian and contractor chaplains were “being told that if they do come to their jobs they will be trespassing. That is just not right.”

“Government should not be able to tell those who are religious whether they can practice their faiths freely, regardless of our government-funding situation,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., whose congressional district includes part of Fort Campbell.

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking Democrat, voted for the resolution but said Republican supporters were exaggerating the problem. “Nobody is getting arrested for praying,” he said. “I really wish we could keep the debate here in the realm of reality.”

The chief sponsor of the resolution is Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., an Air Force Reserve chaplain, who said it “breaks my heart” that contract chaplains were being denied the ability to even voluntarily minister to military members. “If a contract chaplain wants to minister to a military member stationed abroad who has no access to a church, a mosque or a synagogue, he would be in violation of the law,” Collins said.

“As a chaplain, I lived and worked alongside men and women in Iraq. Many were religious and many were not, but my purpose was to ensure that they were able to express their First Amendment rights however they wished,” said Collins, who accused the Obama administration of “unnecessary theatrics” by telling federal civilian and contract chaplains they could not work during the government shutdown, even if they are the only chaplain at a base.

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