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Chief of Army chaplains didn’t want letter on HHS mandates read from pulpit

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WASHINGTON — A directive from the U.S. Army chief of chaplains that a letter opposing the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate not be read from the pulpit by Catholic military chaplains violated First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion, according to the head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services.

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio spoke with Secretary of the Army John McHugh about the chief of chaplains’ response to the archbishop’s Jan. 26 letter and the two “agreed that it was a mistake to stop the reading of the archbishop’s letter,” according to a statement released by the military archdiocese to Catholic News Service Feb. 6.

The two also agreed to McHugh’s suggestion that one line, which read “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law,” be removed from the letter because of “the concern that it could potentially be misunderstood as a call to civil disobedience,” the statement added.

The letter was redistributed at Masses the weekend of Feb. 4-5.

“The issue was quickly resolved and the archdiocese considers this matter closed,” John Schlageter, general counsel for the archdiocese, said in an email to CNS Feb. 7.

Col. James Hutton, media relations chief for the Army, confirmed in a statement late Feb. 7 that the chief of chaplains, Father Donald Rutherford, a major general, had asked Catholic chaplains that they not read the letter but that they distribute it to parishioners after Masses the weekend of Jan. 28-29.

Father Rutherford made the request because he was concerned that one line in the letter “could be misinterpreted as a call to civil disobedience within our nation’s military ranks,” Hutton’s statement said.

“At no time did the chief of chaplains offer any judgment, statement or opinion as to the appropriateness of the letter’s opposition to a specific federal policy, only his concern that a single line might run counter to proper military order and discipline,” Hutton said. “Any suggestion that he or the Army were attempting to censor the clergy is not supported by the facts.”

Following his conversation with Archbishop Broglio, McHugh met Jan. 30 with senior advisers, including Father Rutherford, Hutton’s statement continued. The group “determined that the letter’s content was a matter solely within the jurisdiction of the archbishop and the Catholic Church and its dissemination by military priests as part of a religious service was not a matter for Army review,” it said.

Archbishop Broglio’s letter had been issued as part of a nationwide campaign by U.S. bishops protesting the Department of Health and Human Services requirement that all health plans — even those covering employees of Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable institutions — cover contraceptives, including some that can cause abortions, and sterilization free of charge.

The archbishop said he and the archdiocese “stand firm in the belief, based on legal precedent, that such a directive from the Army constituted a violation of his constitutionally protected right of free speech and the free exercise of religion, as well as those same rights of all military chaplains and their congregants.”

The military archdiocese said there was no objection to the letter from the other branches of military service.