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Public Statements

Expressing Sense of Congress Regarding Need for Continued Availability of Religious Services to Members of the Armed Forces

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. COLLINS of Georgia. Mr. Speaker, I thank the gentleman from South Carolina, whose dedication to our men and women in uniform is among no peer's in this body, and I thank him for his service and for the fight of his family and others as we come along.

I'll tell you today that I rise, Mr. Speaker, really with a troubled heart and also with one that is on behalf of the men and women in the Air Force and the Armed Forces and others who are facing something today that they should not have to face. There is no doubt our Nation is facing many difficulties, and all of us and those across the aisle can understand that. The majority in this body is standing united to fight for the future of our children and grandchildren. Those are legitimate fights, and I respect my colleagues from across the aisle. These are legitimate fights that we are having here. However, today, as I stand, I came to this body also looking for practical things and looking for things that amaze me at times, and this is one that does.

As we do and as we fight for others, we must ensure that the basic rights of all Americans are protected and do not fall victim to the political theater occurring in this body. Military personnel and their families make sacrifices that many of us cannot fathom, and they do so to protect the freedom that we take far too often for granted. Because of their sacrifices, our Nation is a beacon of hope to the dark corners of the world where freedom of speech and religion exist only in fairy tales.

Yet today, military chaplains who have been contracted to come to bases face a closed door. They cannot go on these bases during a lapse of appropriations even if they wanted to volunteer to practice their faiths. Each of us in this body and across the Nation should pause for a moment to consider and think about what I just said. 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. I am a military chaplain, and this breaks my heart.

Too often, we come to this floor and we talk in abstracts. We talk about concepts and political jargon, arguing about problems that only matter, probably, within less than 3 miles of this building, but today is different. Today, we stand with one resounding voice to tell our servicemembers and the chaplaincy that we will not stand for their First Amendment rights to be violated because the leaders in the other body want to make a point. The laws in this Nation require the Federal Government to ensure that military personnel can express their faiths or non-faith in all corners of the world. That is why the military chaplaincy exists and, when we cannot serve the needs of those, why we contract with others who can provide that basis of one's faith.

General George Washington issued an order on July 9, 1776, providing through the Continental Congress for a chaplain for each regiment, stating:

The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger.

The administration is apparently unsatisfied with denying veterans access to memorials and is unsatisfied with closing off unmanned scenic overlooks to motorists. Now they must go after, in the words of George Washington, the ``blessing and protection of Heaven'' for our military families.

The body has seen its share of political discord and policy disagreements. The government has experienced numerous lapses in appropriations over the decades, but never before in the history of this Nation have the military chaplains and those they contract with to serve our military personnel been prevented from meeting the religious and spiritual needs of our servicemembers.

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. Military chaplains and their contract counterparts must be allowed to provide religious service and ministry regardless of our Nation's fiscal state.

If the administration wants to play games and score points through unnecessary theatrics, so be it; but I will not stand by and let these games occur at the expense of the basic rights of our men and women in uniform.

During this lapse in funding, Active Duty chaplains are permitted to continue serving military personnel. However, there is a chronic shortage of Active Duty chaplains, particularly for Catholic and Jewish faiths. For example, roughly 25 percent of the military ascribe to the Catholic faith; yet Catholic priests make up only 8 percent of the Chaplain Corps. That means that approximately 275,000 men and women in uniform and their families are served by only 234 Active Duty priests, thus the need to have contract chaplains.

Due to the shortage of Active Duty chaplains, it is extremely common for the government to employ chaplains via contracts to ensure that the spiritual needs of all of our military members are met. With the government shutdown, contract members of the Chaplain Corps on military bases worldwide are not permitted to work--they are not even permitted to volunteer--even if they are the only chaplains on base.

As my friend from South Carolina and others have mentioned, the restrictions on basic freedoms that are being had around here--and just within this area at Langley, at the Navy Yard and at Fort Belvoir--are all areas that have already been cut back, and that is a shame. I am grateful to my colleagues who have joined me this morning and the House leadership for their commitment to ensuring that military chaplains are able to serve the men and women of our Armed Forces.

If this body does not pass this legislation, the ability of military personnel and their families to worship and participate in religious ceremonies will continue to be at great risk. I ask all of my colleagues to join me in protecting the First Amendment rights of those who give their lives to protect ours.

Before I close, I agree that many times we haven't communicated, and we don't communicate as many would want us to; but I have also heard that timing was a problem here and that we should have seen this coming. Let me just say timing should never be a hindrance to this body's protecting the First Amendment rights of any of our citizens, especially of our military personnel. In fact, it should be our highest calling and the thing we run to this floor to discuss.

Should we have seen it coming?

I'll tell you, what saddens me is I would have never believed that the administration or anyone else would deem protecting a constitutional right as nonessential.


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