Mr. Obama has never been a particular fan of the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion, but he never attacked it in so direct a way as with his feud with Roman Catholic Church. He’s threatening to punish “contract priests” hired to supplement the chaplain corps. There are only 234 active-duty commissioned military chaplains to care for 275,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who profess the Catholic faith. It’s not nearly enough, so the military services employ priests on contract to perform Sunday services, weddings and baptisms on base. No federal funds are used, and these priests would gladly perform these duties voluntarily during the government shutdown, but they are prohibited from doing so. “During the shutdown,” warns the top lawyer for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, “it is illegal for them to minister on base, and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so.”
The House last week approved a resolution by a virtually unanimous vote of 400 to 1 urging the Pentagon to allow the chaplains to do their job. “Military personnel enjoy, like all Americans, the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion,” said the Rev. Timothy P. Broglio, archbishop for military services, after the vote. “In the current political climate, however, nothing can be taken for granted.” Senate passage of the measure and the president’s signature aren’t likely.
The Pentagon doesn’t classify priests as essential, and the threat to arrest men of the cloth betrays Mr. Obama’s intention to win the short-term political battle no matter the cost. “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” he once told supporters.
The president also has stepped up the use of airborne drones to spy on Americans in apparent violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable and unwarranted searches. Previously owning up to only two instances of domestic unmanned aerial surveillance, officials of the Customs and Border Protection service released a list last week of 500 occasions over three years in which the agency flew Predator drone missions on behalf of other federal agencies.
The list was liberated by a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which posted an inventory of drone flights requested by such agencies as the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the North Dakota Narcotics Task Force, as well as missions on behalf of the Navy and Air Force, raising the question of whether this violates the Posse Comitatus Act, which limits the use of the military for domestic law enforcement.
The Constitution is essential for the preservation of liberty and the White House appears to see it as a minor inconvenience. With three years to go, Mr. Obama is on track to render the founding document a dead letter on the way to his goal of “fundamentally transforming” the nation. Instead of worrying about the impact of sending a few bureaucrats home for a week or two, we ought to worry about his furloughing freedoms, or we’ll need more than the prayers of chaplains.